A Report on the Paris Talks

by Ross Terrill | July 13, 1968

Jaw-jaw is better than war-war," remarked Winston Churchill. But the two are not mutually exclusive. The "jaw-jaw" of the Peace Talks has de-escalated to one low-key session a week, while the "war-war" has escalated to a new peak of intensity and human loss. Are the Paris talks a cruel mockery? Is anything happening here; can anything happen here? One is tempted to dismiss it all as unreal. Outside the halls and lobbies France has quivered in crisis. My conversations with North Vietnamese have sometimes taken place with the boom of grenades and the shouts and thuds of street melees as distant sound effects. French officials find it hard to talk for 10 minutes about the Official Conversations - as the Peace Talks are called - without reverting to the drama of de Gaulle and his attackers.

If the small knot of people concerned with the Talks are a ghetto within Paris, they are also fantastically abstracted from the stern realities of Vietnam. That elegant Vietnamese hand holds not a grenade, but a cocktail. There can be no rude event such as that of August 22, 1951, during the Korean Talks, when an American plane bombed the North Korean and Chinese negotiators in their quarters at Kaesong. At "recreation" breaks during the talks, Harriman and Xuan Thuy and their teams chat mainly about food and drink, events in Paris, and how they amused themselves the previous weekend. Certainly it is heartening, after so many unfruitful peace feelers that Hanoi and Washington are conversing at all. Yet the public sessions have been two monologues rather than talks; little has yet gone on in private.

One can say that the moments of recreation have grown more extended, that channels of private communication are beginning to be explored, that the oral as distinct from the prepared portion of the sessions has grown longer, that civility has been maintained, and that both sides - like lovers who, though unsuccessful, still possess desire - have a tacit agreement to stick at it despite the apparent barrenness. The "dialogue of the deaf," as one French official termed it, must have something in it somewhere. The paradox is that it is not David, but Goliath, who is the more eager for progress in the Talks. Certainly North Vietnam (DRV) has been hurt by the bombing. It has also been driven into an historically-dreaded dependence upon China by the intensification of the war; a settlement will begin a reverse process in this regard. Hanoi has revealed a desire for a settlement by the progressive loosening of its terms for talks. Two years ago it was said there could be talks with the US only if Washington accepted in principle the DRV's Four Points; later it was said that talks could begin when all "acts of war" against the DRV ceased; finally Xuan Thuy came to Paris while US bombings were still almost as great (not in scope but in missions and tonnage) as they have ever been.

Yet the basic facts of the war still favor the DRV. North Vietnam is holding its own militarily. Westmoreland may have said things "have never been better" as he left Saigon, but the rockets which crashed in on the city simultaneously spoke louder. South Vietnam's great protector is in the war up to its military and political neck. North Vietnam's two great protectors, on the other hand, have been able to watch the US writhe with only a minimum of effort on their part. The communist world, in other words, has much potential still in reserve in this war — despite the serious divisions within it, which raise questions about how, where, and when fresh strength could be applied. Above all, the Hanoi regime and the NLF are Vietnamese, fighting mostly foreigners on Vietnamese soil. Nothing can counterbalance this advantage. It leads much international opinion, as represented here in Paris to lean to Hanoi's side. It gives the DRV fighters the iron morale of men who feel themselves to be patriotic defenders of the very bodies, fields, and homes of their people.

At the ninth session on June 19 Mr. Harriman said Hanoi "would be making a fatal mistake" if it did not see that "world opinion had turned against North Vietnam" by developments since the I-will-not-run speech of President Johnson on March 31. The American delegation is deeply convinced on this point. But traveling from the US to Europe, and listening here to the full array of Asians that Paris contains, it becomes clear that the March 31 speech is not widely regarded - outside the US - as a towering act of statesmanship, but more frequently as a confession of the bankruptcy of the entire US policy toward Vietnam and East Asia generally.

These varying interpretations are crucial to the pat- tern one can expect the Peace Talks to follow. Did Johnson put himself one up on March 31, or did he reveal himself as being desperate? If the first is true, Hanoi will have to take the next step (this is the position of Harriman). If the second is true, the US has already betrayed to Hanoi that it wants out. This leaves Ho Chi Minh in the relatively happy situation of standing firm and waiting for the cracks in the Johnson policies to widen further and further, to the point where Ho, to get peace, has to make few concessions beyond those he has already made.

 

The evidence in Paris points to the second line rather than to the first. The Americans seem more anxious than the North Vietnamese. Hanoi, to be sure, is hot for publicity, and a little disappointed that its level has fallen off since the Talks began. But it is Washington which is hot for progress. It is Harriman, not Xuan Thuy, who has been pressing for more frequent meetings. It is Harriman — concerned at the impact of the weekly denunciation from Xuan Thuy, not least upon the nervous allies of the US — who has been urging, so far without success, for a discontinuation of the practice of issuing the full text of each session's statements to the press. It was Harriman, leaving for Washington on June 21, who felt he had to say the Talks had brought some "slight progress"; Nguyen Thanh Le rebutted him immediately, saying there had been "no progress." And for what such an impression is worth, it is the Americans, more than the Vietnamese, who seem depressed and edgy after the barren sessions.

One cannot expect, after all, as some American columnists evidently do, that the March 31 speech will somehow cancel the fact that the Vietnam war has brought the US to one of the deepest crises of its history. Recall Harriman's own words of 20 months ago in Colombo, uttered cockily to the skeptical Ceylonese: "I can assure you that the entire people of the United States are supporting the President in the war." Now the world knows (the President's own reflective remarks about "division" in the nation testify to it) that this has not been true. Xuan Thuy rams home the point, with quotations from Fulbright, Robert Kennedy and others, every time he speaks.

Recall what George Kennan said just four months ago: "It is not an exaggeration to say that today, after four years of this dreadfully misconceived effort, we are in a situation more serious than any we have known since the first months of 1942, and in some respects more serious than that." The Hanoi delegation is acutely aware of this. They know enough about America to realize they are talking with a country which has lost confidence in much of its Asian policy. They even cite Mao Tse-tung's remark of some years ago, to the effect that the US has picked up a stone to throw at the people of Vietnam, only to drop it on its own foot.

William Jordan, spokesman for the US delegation, holds his briefings in front of an enormous American flag that nearly covers the wall behind him. Lit up by the TV lights, it lends a strident note which the briefings' bear out. Jordan himself struggles to be dead-pan, but cannot completely hide his sense of being deeply wounded by the DRV attacks, which he is forced by the questions to refer to. It seems to pain him to have to be dealing, on a footing of equality, with a mob of Asian peasants who totally fail to discern America's good intentions.

At the French Foreign Office building in the Avenue Segur, Nguyen Thanh Le, spokesman for Hanoi, seems to suffer less. His main worry is probably the wilting of interest in the Talks. Dealing with the US as an equal is clearly fine with him. He summarizes in detail, and with care, not only what Xuan Thuy has said the preceding session, but also what Harriman has said. He refers, easily and with satisfaction, to a whole range of authorities, from the French government to US critics of the war, in support of the DRV position. He is assured and patient.

One finds confirmation of Hanoi's satisfaction with the attention her point of view is receiving, in the nervousness of Saigon's representatives in Paris. Hanoi is discussing South Vietnamese affairs - stress upon the south has been especially great in the last two sessions - while the men of Saigon have to twiddle their thumbs in their embassy and wait for the mimeographed text.

The North Vietnamese are in no great hurry in Paris because they have much, much more still to churn out about the sufferings of their country. Unlike Mr. Harriman and Mr. Vance, they have no worry about public opinion at home, no impatience from that quarter can complicate their plans. News within the DRV is tailored to serve the purposes of the ruling party; single-minded attention can therefore be given to international public opinion.

US spokesmen have told journalists that Harriman is concerned that hawkish pressures at home will make a resumption of the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong likely, unless there is progress in Paris soon. But it is regarded as unthinkable, here in Europe, that full bombing should be resumed. The reason is not primarily that this would be unjust (though that is surely the prevailing view). Rather it is the doubts long evident among Americans themselves, not least Robert McNamara, that the bombing can be a decisive element in the war. If the bombing is resumed now, the reasoning goes, it will be a sign of mindless abandon on Washington's part. Calculated strategy will have given way to desperation, brutality, and open-ended challenge to the whole communist camp. The two points join together when Frenchmen express doubt that the White House itself has any longer sufficient confidence in the rightness and effectiveness of the entire Vietnam policy to go back and retrace old steps, at the cost of the certain breakup of the Paris Talks. The hawks were right when they said that to stop the bombing would be taken as a sign of weakness and that once you stop the bombing it is very hard indeed to start it again. (The doves were right in saying the bombing would be basically ineffective anyhow.)

The biggest handicap of all for the US is Johnson's withdrawal from the Presidency. To be sure, the March 31 speech rehearsed all the familiar arguments for the Vietnam policy, and claimed success for it, but its more eloquent part was the action it announced. The withdrawal seen from Paris, has written all over it the failure of the Johnson policy. Hanoi's men have taken this as their starting point. This is why they came to Paris. This is why they sit tight waiting for a further step from the restless Americans.

Meanwhile the North Vietnamese are, more than ever before, in a delicate, even perilous position in relation to their own allies. They are under no illusions about the depth of the Chinese-Soviet antagonism. In public complete blandness on the issue is maintained. But signals are occasionally given, like Ho's refusal of the Lenin Prize, or the comment by the journal Hoc Tap, on Ho's birthday last year: "We love and respect our leader, but we do not deify him" (so much for the cultural revolution). In private Hanoi sometimes bangs the table in the presence of the quarreling giants. She is painfully aware that neither of them put her own struggle at the top of their list of priorities. Moscow could give far more aid than it does, if the desire for stable relations with Washington did not so preoccupy it. Peking, similarly guided by national interest, especially in the face of the US menace, seems to follow the maxim of her great theorist of war. Sun Tze, who wrote 2,500 years ago: "To win a war without striking a blow is perfection."

Hanoi is more lonely - or independent, take your pick - in these Talks than is generally realized. Between the March 31 speech and Hanoi's acceptance of the proposal to talk. North Vietnam had only very general consultations with friendly governments, the most important perhaps being those with France. Advice from Peking and Moscow has many times been disregarded. The North Vietnamese realize, however, that when a definite settlement approaches, China, the USSR, and others will have to be in it in some form, as happened in 1954. This will be a danger point for Hanoi. Just as some North Vietnamese believe Moscow pressured them into the disadvantageous settlement in 1954, so, it seems, some in the NLF believe that Hanoi, in turn, left them naked in 1954 to face the oppressions of the anti-communist Saigon regime. Signs are that the NLF, as well as Thieu, are anxious about the Paris Talks, in which their nation is represented only by the lean warriors of the north. The Hanoi delegation in Paris is keenly conscious of the NLF problem; it is indeed probably their biggest problem at present.

 

Two facts, one geographic, one political, seem basic. The south is richer than the north, and it has always been desirable to northerners to have southern food sources available to them. Tran Van Huu, former head of the Saigon government, told me last week that at Geneva in 1954, Pham Van Dong, Premier of the DRV, in a four-hour private talk admitted that Hanoi needed and wanted economic aid from the south. Second - a matter of crucial importance for the future pattern of the Talks - there are "patriotic nationalists" in the south, some inside the NLF and some outside, for whom the dominance of Hanoi is tolerable only so long as it is necessary to drive out the Americans. Some of these patriotic nationalists in Paris have received cordial communications, requesting general assistance in the struggle, from Nguyen Huu Tho, President of the NLF.

Their viewpoint on the vexed issue of DRV troops in the south is revealing, and epitomizes their overall position. Said Tran Van Huu: "Xuan Thuy is perfectly within his rights in refusing to let the issue of DRV troops in the south become a factor in the Talks. Vietnam is one, Geneva affirmed that, and while there are foreign troops in Vietnam, Hanoi is right to fight them." With equal intensity he continued: "But after the foreigners are beaten, Hanoi's rights in the south come to an end. She must not take over the south politically. Vietnamese public opinion will not permit it."

This of course will be the future point of contention between Hanoi and the NLF. But already in Paris, Hanoi is trying to lay its own kind of foundation for a settlement on the future of the south. It has not limited its side of the Talks to the "acts of war against the DRV." Le Due Tho, the Politbureau member who arrived in the first week of June, is a specialist on southern, questions. There are ingredients in this situation which must disturb the NLF. In his letter to Heads of State of January 1966, Ho Chi Minh said: "If the US really wants peace, it must recognize the NLFSV as the sole genuine representative of the people of South Vietnam, and engage in negotiations with it." The startling fact is that Hanoi has edged away from both of these points. Hanoi has welcomed the Alliance of National Democratic and Peace Forces. Formed in April from among men in and around Saigon, the Alliance has a separate existence from the NLF. The DRV delegation in Paris, moreover, has made contact with "patriotic nationalist" figures resident in Paris. Evidently the NLF is not, after all, the "sole genuine representative" of the south. Further- more, the delegation in Paris insists only on the program of the NLF, not on its presence at the negotiating table. Xuan Thuy states that after the bombing has fully ceased, the DRV - but not, apparently, the NLF - will discuss "matters of common concern to the DRV and the US." The North Vietnamese declined to tell me more specifically what these questions would be, but it is clear they will be about the future of South Vietnam. This cannot please the NLF. "Anyone who has anything to discuss in connection with South Vietnam," the NLF chief in Hanoi told Harrison Salisbury in January 1967, "must discuss it with the Front. The North cannot speak for the South. Tran Huu Kha of the NLF office in East Berlin expressed similar sentiments to me in June 1966."

I do not believe it to be true that Hanoi is less hawkish than the NLF, somewhat as Moscow is less hawkish than Peking. The difference between Hanoi and the NLF is primarily over who will have the power to shape the future of the south. In Paris there is a curious, tacit alliance between Hanoi and Washington on one matter: both want to have the say, for their side on the ideological fence, about the political future of the south. Hence the Talks have coursed widely over the southern affairs, notwithstanding Hanoi's prior statement that the Talks were being held to "end the bombing," notwithstanding Saigon's anxieties, and notwithstanding the fact that eventually it is with the NLF that the US must negotiate the future of the south.

It seems to me that one way for the US to get things moving in Paris would be to enlarge the Talks, so that they include the NLF, and no doubt Saigon as well. This would certainly make the Talks infinitely more realistic. This would also serve to bring out the differing perspectives of Hanoi and the NLF, which Harriman could doubtless exploit to US advantage. It would, in a concrete way, introduce into the discussions what every Vietnamese knows - that most southerners do not wish to see Hanoi govern the south. The whole assemblage of "patriotic nationalists" - who are incongruously excluded by the present polarization - would then become a factor in the Talks, whether directly or indirectly. The shape of a possible coalition government might then come dimly into view. The paradox of the Talks so far, is that the US is allowing the North Vietnamese to maneuver themselves into position as spokesmen for the south. Yet the whole war, according to Washington, is being fought in order to keep Hanoi's fingers out of southern affairs. It is true now, as it always has been, that the strongest bulwark against Hanoi's southern ambitions is the left wing southern nationalists, some inside and some outside the NLF. The US, however, refuses to do business with them. Just as the Johnson policy has tended to push Hanoi into the lap of Peking, so in Paris it tends to deliver up the most important and worthy political elements in South Vietnam into the lap of Hanoi.

Will there be progress? Developments on the battlefield are the key. Some observers think the heavy fighting may not be a bad omen for peace. "When there is hard fighting, together with talking, it is a sign of peace," said a shrewd Chinese here. "When all is politeness and assurances, together with military calm - the way Hitler did it - that is bad." Each side is staking out claims by military means., But it is no longer believed that gains can be finally secured by force alone. The goal is to have them registered and sanctioned at the negotiating table.

Yet the US will surely have to become more flexible on the substantial issues, given that she is not able, for combined military and political reasons, to win on the battlefield. Harriman asks Hanoi to begin some sort of withdrawal from the south, in return for total cessation of the bombing. But the real reciprocity for Hanoi's retreat from the south is surely American retreat from the south (and even this way of viewing the matter somewhat favors the US, since, according to Geneva, the northerners are not crossing a state frontier in moving south). Above all, Washington will have to start seeing the south other than as the unique preserve of Thieu and Ky. In legal terms the drive by the DRV delegation to establish that "Vietnam is One" is valid. In political terms, however, it is shaky. To counter this DRV drive, the real elements in southern politics will have to be confronted. The strangely elusive nature of the war has always lain in its being, not a war to defend an established entity, but a war to create an established entity. The anti-communist, semi-colonial governments of Saigon have not been able to do it. The US, for all its wealth and power, cannot possibly do it. Hanoi is bidding in Paris for an opportunity to do it. Is that what Harriman and Johnson want?

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