Making Peace at Paris: A Special Report on the Negotiations

The ATLANTIC this month devotes its entire Reports section to this account of how the Paris peace negotiations began to progress toward an accommodation. Mr. Terrill,an Australian journalist and political scientist ivho has written extensively about the Far Fast and Communist countries,made five visits to Paris for this assignment.


Like musicians with fingers stuck on the keys, the negotiators spent the entire summer on a single chord. When the leaves began to fall in October, they struck the same notes they had when the fresh buds appeared in May. The overture continued, the themes were ingeniously reworked, but for five months the action never started, the full cast remained backstage, some of the audience filtered away. “We are not discouraged,” said Averell Harriman. “We expected this obstinacy on the part of the Americans,” said Xuan Thuy.

But what did they really feel? What is the plot, and what are the tones, of this drama? When the bombing stopped, the real bargaining began. How did Washington and Hanoi arrive at this point; where do they go from here?

Jean Lacouture wrote in his biography of Ho Chi Minh: “The year 1953 saw rise to the surface in France an irrepressible desire to have finished with the distant and doubtful expedition in indo-China.” The French government recognized the mood, yet vowed that the end to the affair would come in the form of victory. Foreign Minister Bidault saw light at the end of the tunnel: “The Viet Minh is at its last gasp.” Many Frenchmen see history repeating itself. They see a collapse of U.S. “will” to continue long enough to outlast Ho Chi Minh, an old fox with half a century of revolutionary experience. They sec the United States increasingly isolated, as France became by 1954. They see the gut realities of national struggle once more outweighing in importance the ideological formality according to which the war is a vital battle between “the West” and “Communism.” They see the domestic social and political crisis within the United States as a repeat of their own sad experience during the Indochina and Algerian wars. They urge the United States to “settle” now, before the choices become even more unpleasant than they are already; just as France could have done better to settle at Rangoon in 1952, or in 1953 when Ho made a peace offer through the Swedish journalist Lofgren, than to have hung on and suffered Dienbienphu.

They see the summer of 1968 as the beginning of the end of that combination of idealism and business management which is the American Empire. To start on the road to a settlement with the Vietnamese Communists, the argument goes, is to give up the crusader’s conception of the world on which postwar U.S. foreign policy has often been based. Did not General Gavin testify that U.S. intervention in Vietnam was evolved at a time when a “simple vision of the world . . . in terms of good guys and bad guys” prevailed in Washington? While the French saw the Geneva Accords of 1954 as the end of a historical phase of empire in Asia, Washington, according to Gavin, saw Geneva in ideological terms. “We had the feeling,” he wrote of the Geneva period, “that the French had not only failed in combat, but that now they were about to let down the team.” Senator Lyndon Johnson said during the Geneva conference: “We stand in clear danger of being left naked and alone in a hostile world.” Those who saw the Geneva Accords as an ideological reverse rather than as a historical necessity thus set their feet, however unwittingly, on the path of a new, American empire in Indochina. Those who misunderstood what happened to the French in 1954 are fated to a similar experience in 1969.

That is one view. According to the Administration, though, history is in no sense repeating itself, for the United States is not colonialist in its Asian “presence”; it is in the East to protect principles, not interests. President Johnson correctly detected the shift of the nerve center of world struggle from Europe to Asia, and despite his NATO allies’ failure to take a stand with the United States, his lonely patience will be vindicated. As Walt Rostow told a visitor: “It is on this spot [Vietnam] that we have to break the liberation war—Chinese style.” In this view, the world is a single context. In one decade the issue is focused in one region, later in another, but always the contours ot a “West versus Communism” contest are decisive. Free men everywhere have the right and duty to stop Communism anywhere. The war will lead, in this view, to a Korean type of settlement, with South Vietnam free at last to continue its antiCommunist course, and to prosper, without aggression from the North or subversion from within.

There are men who, despite the five months of impasse at the talks, retained a belief in a negotiated settlement leading to an outcome different from both these. Harriman is one of them. He has been something of a dove on the war ever since John F. Kennedy made him Ambassador-at-Large, and later Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. But more important, he, unlike some in Hanoi and in Washington, believes deeply in the art of diplomacy. No crusader, no respecter of conventional wisdom, he cuts through to the essentials of a problem, fixes his mind on the general lines of a workable solution, and fights for it. These qualities were all evident in his triumph at Geneva in 1962, when he steered the United States to the Laos Accords. Of those Accords President Kennedy said: “They are a heartening indication that difficult and at times seemingly insoluble international problems can in fact be solved by patient diplomacy.” In Paris Harriman tried, against formidable difficulties, to repeat the Laos accomplishment.


Each great Western capital has its own “Asia.” In London “Asia” means primarily the Asian part of the Commonwealth, which speaks English, which British colonels, traders, missionaries know and chat about in British clubs and drawing rooms. Paris knows another Asia. No Indians and Malays in baggy English trousers, as in London. Nor a preponderance of Taiwanese, South Koreans, Filipinos, of the faithful “new Asia” which Lyndon Johnson has so warmly embraced, as in Washington. Asie means more or less Indochina.

Most of the DRV delegation are no strangers to Paris. They count French scholars and journalists who follow Vietnamese affairs among their friends, and with a sure touch they can direct a foreigner to good Parisian restaurants. At dinner tables there are people who know Ho Chi Minh— a fashionable thing now — either from encounters in Hanoi or from his spells in France, the first in 1917, the last in 1946. The French Communist Party has a special tradition of association with Vietnamese revolutionaries. It was France, not the U.S.S.R., that was the cradle of the Vietnamese Communist movement. Ho Chi Minh was a founding member of the French CP, and when he went to Moscow for conferences of the Comintern in the 1920s, it was as a delegate of the French CP.

True to the French imperial concept of “assimilation” (as opposed to the concept of “indirect rule” more frequently applied by the British), the community of Vietnamese who live in Paris seem to have married themselves intimately to the city. France embraces the Vietnamese, upon the condition that they embrace French culture and language, which many Vietnamese are proud to do. Ho himself once exclaimed to Jean Lacouture: “If you knew with what passion I re-read each year Victor Hugo and Michelet.” On another occasion, after Sainteny, prince of French Old Indochina hands, had returned to Hanoi as French Delegate General in 1954, Ho spotted him at a reception given by an Eastern European country. He crossed the room to greet Sainteny with both arms outstretched. Then, turning to Lavritchev, the Soviet Ambassador, Ho suggested that a few words in French would be appropriate. Embarrassed, Lavritchev was unable to comply. Whereupon Ho laughed and exclaimed: “He doesn’t know French? How peculiar!”

Most Parisian Vietnamese are opposed to Communism, yet they deeply respect “Uncle Ho.” They simply love their own country. Their national history is almost a religion, with its own myths, scriptures, and ceremonies. At the same time, they find Paris an agreeable place in which to dream the dreams of their country.

One morning this summer I was talking with Tran Van Huu, Premier of the Saigon government, 19501951, under Bao Dai. He was showing me communications he had received from Ho Chi Minh and Nguyen Huu Tho, president of the NLF, and relating conversation with Pham Van Dong, Prime Minister of the DRV. A group of Vietnamese entered from another room, and he introduced them as “visitors from Saigon.” In the same room, Mai Van Bo, chief of the DRV Mission in Paris, has visited more than once. Huu receives invitations to functions given by Xuan Thuy for friends on the fringes of the peace talks. Such a triumph of national feeling over ideological form is a commonplace in Paris. I even came upon cases of students from South Vietnam, in Paris on scholarships arranged through the Saigon government, amicably in touch with the DRV Mission, to get “fresh information about our country.”

An hour’s drive from the center of Paris, in a tree-lined street named after General Leclerc — one of the more distinguished of the French leaders in Indochina — sits a sprawling villa, comfortable if a little shabby, enclosing a gravel courtyard now given over to a volleyball court, with a small gate in the high front wall as entrance. Here live the DRV delegation, together with their staff, a group of DRV journalists, cooks, and other helpers. The men on the volleyball court often include someone from the delegation, especially if it is Wednesday afternoon. The talks with the United States are Wednesday morning, and the Vietnamese return to their communal haven tense and exhausted, relieved to change pace completely, spending at volleyball the aggression they carefully withhold in the sessions.

Timeless air

Soon after the talks began in May, the Vietnamese moved from the Hotel Lutetia in the Boulevard Raspail, partly, they said, because of the cost and partly to make it possible to eat Vietnamese food. Now at this villa owned by the French CP they have created a commune of some sixty people, some women among them (other reasons are given by French observers for the switch; faced with a choice of being bugged by the French government or the FCP, said one, the Vietnamese chose the latter). The atmosphere is quite unlike that of an embassy, more like a boarding school or a guesthouse in Vietnam itseif. Sandals and open shirts are worn; people sit and loiter around as peasants do; there is that timeless air of Vietnamese community life. Certainly there is none of the regimented, political spirit you find in a comparable Chinese establishment (it is present par excellence in the Chinese Embassy in Paris, where the officials in their tunics bear themselves like firemen, breastplated with the thought of Mao Tse-tung, confronting with grim determination the flames of revisionism or imperialism which they seem to expect the visitor to bring with him). No little red books, no “cult of personality,” no exercises in political gymnastics. The portraits on the walls are more likely to be of buffalo boys than of Ho Chi Minh or Pham Van Dong.

A stout and scruffy retinue of workers from the FCP hang around the villa, guarding its gate, serving as drivers. Curious as to the relations between them and the Vietnamese, I asked two of the Frenchmen as they drove me to Orly what they talk about in the courtyard during the sunny afternoons; later I asked some Vietnamese the same question. The answers were the same: not politics, not the Talks, but their respective war experiences, especially the quirks of American military style and tactics. In .the car I also asked one of the Frenchmen if the Vietnamese were not rather soft, no match for the Americans in negotiation. He turned his head around from the front seat in an emphatic gesture: “You’re wrong. They are tough. Their toughness lies in their obstinacy.”


The headquarters of the U.S. delegation lies in another world. Averell Harriman receives his visitors in a palatial room, overlooking the majesty of the Place de la Concorde. It is scattered with chairs, thickly carpeted in olive green, with a Queen Anne sideboard deep against one wall, a complex phone apparatus beside a massive desk. A photo of President Johnson faces the desk; but it is far back into the room, and full-length; it does not look into Harriman’s eyes the way LBJ portraits in many U.S. Embassies do. Cyrus Vance presides in an only slightly smaller room, brisk and efficient. One could be pardoned for supposing that the U.S. delegation held sessions every day, rather than once a week for about two and a half hours, so businesslike is the mood. They are only waiting, they explained, for “Hanoi to come around and join with us in bringing peace to Vietnam”; but the waiting seemed no passive thing. Military men guard the entrances at various points.

To go from the villa at Choisy to the midtown bulk of the U.S. headquarters is like moving from a talk with peasants to a talk with businessmen. It is not only a visual impression. In the U.S. building there is a strong sense of the clock — a symbol, one reflects, of the seemingly greater anxiety of the Americans for quick progress in the Talks. Overt patriotism, in the form of flags and official pictures, is far more evident than at Choisy. William Jorden, pleasant and taciturn as U.S. spokesman, holds his briefings in front of a gargantuan U.S. flag, covering half the wall behind him. Whereas the U.S. building thus reflects its ideals, the Vietnamese building reflects its culture.

Again there is a symbol here; the Americans arc highly explicit in style, formulations, and the substance of their demands (a “clear, authoritative signal” is asked of Hanoi). The Vietnamese are the opposite; all is nuance and parable, and one sometimes doubts that it is in their cultural vocabulary to be as explicit in their response to the cessation of the bombing as the United States was generally demanding. One further contrast in impressions. In style and substance alike, the U.S. delegation takes a management approach; the Vietnamese take a historical approach. The U.S. men speak as if both sides were faced with a problem. It has to be solved by rational and sensible means. The Vietnamese speak as if there were an issue at stake. It has to be clarified. So the Americans talk in terms of the hard facts of the situation “on the ground” in Vietnam. “The long story of who is aggressor and who is victim is now beside the point,” one told me. But a senior Vietnamese complained: “Whenever I talk of the history, Harriman won’t listen.”

Yet for all these contrasts, the Paris Talks took on, as the months went by, a slightly professional, bloodless character, unfaithful to the reality of sweat, blood, and tears in Vietnam itself. This is no Kaesong or Panmunjom, with shells too close at times for comfort. Ho Chi Minh, in his sandals cut from an old truck tire, might seem a comic figure at the Majestic Hotel, where the sessions take place, and at the French government monolith in Avenue de Segur, where the DRV delegation holds its briefings. Wilfred Burchett, the Australian writer who is close to the DRV delegation, has left the trenches and tunnels of the “Liberated Zones.”where monkey stew is rich fare and the day of the week is seldom known, for a discreet meetings with high personalities on the Allied side.

Is anyone still thinking of the disemboweling, the burying-alive, the water tortures, as they argue over cups of tea on Wednesday mornings? The moral black and white of bitter warfare, the denial of a common humanity that seems necessary to morale in a dirty war, seems incompatible with negotiation where the word of the other side has, sometimes at least, to be accepted. I asked a U.S. delegate if some degree of mutual trust is required for negotiation. “When fighting is going on it is hard to get trust. But we know each better than before. Yes, you do have to have trust. The North Vietnamese are not brutal and rude like the Koreans were. There is none of the personal animosity between delegates that there was at Panmunjom.” Another member of the U.S. delegation remarked: “ Tempers sometimes fray. Governor Harriman tries to make jokes now and then, which Xuan Thuy and Ha Van Lau generally miss. It’s wonderful to watch.”is there some strange, soft trace of humanity here which would shock the front-line officers, on both sides, if they were to savor it?

At Choisy one has a slightly different impression. The “softness” of the Vietnamese, compared, for example, with the Koreans, is clear; perhaps it results from the greater international experience of their revolutionary movement. But did it heighten the prospects for progress? Vietnamese are masters at disguising their feelings, and believe it right to do so; they have a saying “The lightning is over here but the thunder is over there.” Talking about the U.S. demand lor some response, some gesture from Hanoi, one of their delegation said with sudden intensity; “Does Mr. Harriman not realize what a gesture we have already made, coming to Paris, shaking hands and sitting down with men, including U.S. military men, whom Vietnamese regard as killers of our people? Does he not realize how much we have to contain our hatred to do this?”

Perhaps the U.S. delegation underestimated what a boiling interior lay behind the correct exterior. The Vietnamese gave no indication ol any intention to bargain while the bombing continued. The art of negotiation in which Harriman deeply believes passed them by entirely. For the first live months they sought in Paris simply what they have sought on the battlefield: an end to American influence upon their country.

Among the other gulfs between the two sicles, there was a gulf determined by culture between the two approaches to negotiation. “If you stop bombing,” General Wheeler told a Senate Committee once, “in effect you throw one of your blue chips over your shoulder.” “Tradeoff” has been the term often used by Pentagon men to refer to the response required of Hanoi. The commercial images, the philosophy of “give and take” with which U.S. statements are full are somewhat alien to many Asians, including Vietnamese.

There has been a genuine reasonableness about the U.S. approach, a readiness to move “far and fast” toward a settlement the moment Hanoi “responds.” But what is the effect of the “give and take” approach on these part-Confucian, part-Communist Vietnamese, obsessed with the saga of their own history? They will fight till the last man dies, unless their territorial security is at last recognized to be non-negotiable. They showed no rationality, no readiness for “give and take” while the bombing continued. During July the DRV men “conveyed” that the lull in fighting since mid-June was a deliberate political step. They declined to characterize explicitly the lull as a “political response” to the U.S. delegeition; but they left the French convinced it was. The French passed on to the United States their own view. Harriman apparently gave to Washington his view that, with qualifications, this was a significant response from Hanoi. Then came Honolulu and the Rusk press conference of July 31; Hanoi must announce, in a “responsible, authoritative” way, their response to a bombing halt.

But Hanoi, however great a concession it may be prepared to make toward the goal of a cease-fire in the South, would not trade such a concession for a bombing halt. So it has been hard to see the “blue chip” character of the bombing. Rather it seemed, as McNamara implied and Gavin asserted, counterproductive. It has made heroes of the North Vietnamese, and put them, in mood and in political reality alike, outside the bounds of the “give and take” philosophy of negotiation. If the bombing were really a blue chip, surely it should have proved tradable for an end to, or at least a reduction of, Hanoi’s activities in the South.

Harriman has referred to the North Vietnamese as “Bolsheviks.” “Bolsheviks, whether from Moscow or Hanoi . . .” Harriman knows Bolsheviks far better than he knows Asians; his distinguished diplomatic career has been spent very largely in the Atlantic world. How Leninist are Xuan Thuy and his band?

Mindful of Lenin’s views on peace and war—that both should be understood in class terms: there can ultimately be no “peace,” nationally or internationally, where class struggle still rages — I asked one of them to analyze what meaning “peace” has in today’s world. “By peace in today’s world, we mean peace in Vietnam. That is peace defined and analyzed, practically and theoretically, alpha and omega.” I started to quote Lenin, but they smiled so outrageously that I stopped.

Then “culture” was discussed. The Vietnamese had spoken of their “talks with French citizens concerning the bad effects of U.S. cultural influence.” Asked if French culture was judged to be superior, one man replied: “Yes, perhaps, but we accept in the DRV any cultural influence that is sound.” Sniffing again for Marxist-Leninist theory, I asked if “sound” meant “sound from the class point of view.” Laughter. One expounded a purely humanist understanding of sound culture, citing Chaplin’s films, one of which he had just seen in Paris, as a case of a fine cultural achievement. He concluded: “Any cultural manifestation which does no harm to the independence of Vietnam is sound culture.” Laughter again, during which I wrote in my notebook: “My god, they are not Marxists at all.”

Mark of the diplomat

The North Vietnamese had a certain respect for Harriman early in the summer, though it faded when, contrary to their expectations, he did not produce a bombing halt in July (it returned somewhat in October). They acknowledged faintly, at least when they compared him with Vance and others, that there might be something in the name he has earned of “Crocodile” — for his aptness at snapping through pedantry and conventional wisdom With jaws of wit or logic. In fact, the seventy-seven-year-old prince of diplomats (he is one year younger than Ho) gives many people at the Talks a slightly different impression than Vance.

He is not as keen as Vance on LBJ phrases such as “if they will leave their neighbors alone.” His tone and language have every mark of the diplomat, none of the ideologue. He makes it clear that he believes in the U.S. goals in Vietnam, but that he also believes in the art of negotiation; that real and substantial things can be obtained when contending parties seek out the common ground between them. As Schlesinger said of his work in the Laos talks: “He conceived his task in terms not of victory but of settlement.” He seems more interested in exerting influence than in winning the rewards due to loyalty — as is shown by his readiness to undertake somewhat lower ranking, since 1960, than he had in some previous jobs. He wants these talks to succeed, believes they can succeed, and these convictions are not outweighed by considerations arising from ties to any party or person. He does not suffer bureaucratic restrictions gladly. In 1961 he was convinced that Souvanna Phouma was the key to a workable Laotian government — though some in the West wrote the Laotian off as a Communist. Catching sight of him at Delhi Airport, Harriman walked up and introduced himself. He explained to me in Paris: “If you want to linci out what someone thinks and wants you must talk to him.” He talked to Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Yi in Geneva during the Laos Conference, despite State Department disapproval. He still believes there is no substitute for such direct talks, and in Paris he has spread his web of informal contacts very wide.


There was a certain irony in the holding of the Talks in Paris. When France itself was fighting in Vietnam and in Algeria, it sank to a new low in international standing, and its isolation wounded many Frenchmen. Now the wheel has turned full circle. Its recovery from these damaging colonial wars has been so complete that it is able to be host for its “successors” in Vietnam to talk with the DRV. Furthermore, it is palpably more sympathetic to its erstwhile enemy than to its “successors”; the country that was once the anchor of NATO leans to the side of the Viet Minh against the U.S.A.!

No other country in the world now attracts the array of diplomats that France does. It includes a quartet that is found in few, if any, other capitals: China, U.S.A., South Vietnam, North Vietnam. Unfortunately for General de Gaulle, the “events” — as the May-June upheaval is often called — somewhat dimmed the brightness of Paris as a haven for peaceful diplomacy. It was as if the host, having made meticulous preparations, were suddenly confronted by a leaking roof and falling plaster as his guests sat down to table.

For a quite different reason, some of France’s Vietnam commentators, especially among the Old Indochina hands, have found it appropriate to treat the Talks with a shrug of the shoulder. They seem to feel just a little upstaged, however illogical it is to do so, that their old adversaries, or protégés, are now talking directly with Americans — and building up a body of diplomatic folklore to which they are not privy.

Following the diplomatic round here, one asks why Vietnam has become such a manifest landmark in world history, when other conflicts (for example, that in Nigeria) or tragedies (for example, the Indonesian massacres) have not. At bottom, it is because the Great Powers made Vietnam into an issue of global significance. And again because it embodies elements which arc central to Asian politics as a whole — nationalism, U.S. presence, struggle for land reform, a Communist movement — at a time when the focus of deepest world tension has moved to Asia, where the two most mutually antagonistic of the giants, China and the United States, confront each other.

Grim isolation

Despite their own vital involvement in the outcome of the Vietnam struggle, the Asians seemed oddly removed from the center of things in Paris, certainly more so than during the Laos Talks. The glaring absence was that of any South Vietnamese in the Talks. After all, the fate of their part of Vietnam is now, as it has always been, the central issue at stake. The Saigon officials are nervous. They mistrust the French, who have paved the way for an information office of the NLF in Paris, and they have been manifestly more hawkish than the United States in their position on the Talks, So there was little peace of mind among them as they sat in their consulate each Wednesday, waiting for a mimeographed text of what other regimes said about them and their future.

The Chinese were in grim, disapproving isolation. Notwithstanding their reputation in some quarters as wizards of public relations, they say nothing in public, and almost nothing in private about the Talks. The press chief at the embassy went back to Peking around the time the Talks began. Officials who greeted me there — and asked me to sit down only after I started to talk Chinese — declined even to supply figures, in the broadest outline, of Chinese aid to Vietnam (which is considerable, especially in food and small arms).

The Japanese were the dominant Asian presence. Probably no public other than the U.S. public was being kept better informed of the Talks than the Japanese. Its embassy officials, aware that the outcome could be crucial for Japanese domestic polities, followed each session with the closest attention. Yet what an “Atlantic world” affair the Talks were, in their dynamics as in their outer aspect! It was France and the U.S.S.R., not any Asian countries, which were nearest to being intermediaries.


Throughout the summer, the U.S. delegates never effectively probed the central weakness in the DRV position. Hanoi cried out that “Vietnam is One Country.” Technically it is true; the two parts of Vietnam are “zones,” not sovereign states. The American claim that the nation of South Vietnam has been aggressed is not fully convincing. First, because the whole campaign against Diem began in the South; principally in the extreme South, the Mekong Delta. Second, because both South and North Vietnamese do, according to Geneva, have some rights of movement between the zones; certainly Northerners have more right to be in the South than Americans have to be there. Third, the NLF is markedly more Southern in its leadership than the Saigon government. Almost all of its central Committee arc said to be “cochin-chinois.” By contrast, one of the persistent tragedies of the Saigon regimes has been that Northerners, from the lowest levels to the highest - Ky is a Northerner — have ruled the South with insufficient regard for Southern quirks and susceptibilities.

But politically the DRV argument is weak. In hard reality, Vietnam is not “one,” and could not be smoothly administered from Hanoi after the foreigners depart. As the former Premier Tran Van Huu remarked: “In the presence of foreigners, Southerners and Northerners are one. But among ourselves it is another question.” Many Southerners agree with Hanoi that in the present desperate situation Hanoi has the right to fight in the South, but insist that as soon as the foreigners are gone Hanoi must remove her fingers completely from Southern affairs.

There are two separate dimensions to the problem of North and South. One centers around the relations between Hanoi and the NLF. There is a second: what do the people, and Southern leaders outside the NLF, think of Hanoi? The second question is important, because even if the NLF were prepared to rule the South exactly as Hanoi dictated, it is far from certain that the NLF could do so. Indeed there may well be an inverse relation between the degree of the NLF’s subservience to Hanoi and its prospects of effectively and justly governing the South.

Some of the differences between Hanoi and the NLF are well known. Notably, reunification for Hanoi is a more immediate and priority task than it is for the NLF. The 1967 Program of the NLF heads its section on reunification: “To Restore Normal Relations Between North and South Vietnam.” Others are little known. The Program, a long and detailed document, makes not one mention of the Geneva Accords. On the other hand the DRV speaks frequently of the Accords, accepting them as the basis for some settlement of the war. The truth is that many NLF leaders feel that by accepting the Accords, Hanoi left the Southern rebels naked before the anti-Communist repressions of Diem. They are now less disposed than Hanoi to give their approval to an international conference on Vietnam.

On this and other matters, the NLF is closer to Peking than is the DRV. Jacques Doyon, in an interview with an NLF leader in Vietnam last year, asked him about the Russian-Chinese split. Without going into details, he nevertheless said, for the record: “Perhaps, when it comes to the point, we feel ourselves to be closer to China.” NLF diplomats in Berlin and Warsaw have conveyed the same sentiments to me. In Hanoi there are pro-Chinese elements, but they have been kept in eclipse by the anti-Chinese line of Ho, especially since the Paris Talks began.

In the days following the DRV acceptance of Johnson’s offer to talk, Peking published the tough NLF reaction, but not the DRV statement. Throughout the summer, Peking publicized the tougher portions of Hanoi’s statements, together with fuller versions of the NLF’s consistently tougher statements. Last July, the NLF issued a declaration which embodied more or less the Chinese position on the war. The Talks were obliquely referred to as “perfidious maneuvers” and “prating about ‘peace’ ” on the part of the United States. It was said that the NLF would fight until all foreign troops depart and all foreign military bases arc dismantled. Then most dramatically, Hanoi supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, while the NLF kept silent. DRV men told me they regretted the invasion. The fact remains that they felt it necessary to support it, in no lukewarm terms (it was to “check the intervention of U.S. imperialists and West German revanchists”), whereas the NLF did not feel it necessary to make this gesture in favor of Moscow.

Who speaks for the South?

But it would be a mistake to sum up the DRV-NLF differences in terms of one leaning to Moscow and the other leaning to Peking. That touches only the surface: the diplomatic necessity of the situation. The more basic issue is, who shall speak for the South, who shall rule the South in the future, and how shall they rule? In January, 1967, the NLF chief in Hanoi told Harrison Salisbury: “Anyone who has anything to discuss in connection with South Vietnam must discuss it with the Front.” A little later the NLF chief in Moscow told Jean Lacouture: “If the DRV leaders want to talk with the U.S., that is all right for them; but it does not affect us in the South.” Tran Huu Kha of the Berlin office of the NLF has expressed substantially the same views to me. Ho himself, in his January, 1966, tetter to Heads of State, said that “if the U.S. really wants peace” it will have to “engage in negotiations” with the NLF. Certainly the DRV delegation expected that in some future stage the NLF would become involved in the Falks. But the hard fact is that the DRV was discussing Southern affairs with the United States. There is no question that at least some of the NLF leaders had misgivings about this state of affairs. They feared that once more a solution might be concocted at an international conference which would rob them of their victory in the South; that Hanoi might, in order to get peace in the North, make concessions on the South that were unacceptable to the NLF.

In some respects the NLF is less “tough” than Hanoi. On the terms for settling the war, they are more “hawkish” than Hanoi, but on political doctrine they are less “Red” than Hanoi. A senior member of the DRV delegation in Paris was quite frank on this difference. “Naturally there will be adjustments needed,” he said, “since we in the North are socialist, and have been for some time, whereas they in the South are more varied.” Hanoi finds this approach too inclusive; it would complicate the process of reunification.

Here we arrive at the second dimension of the problem of North and South. Saigon has to rule people who are different from those Hanoi rules. They are richer; more religious and emotional; less historically minded — for it is the North that has the long patriotic tradition; fiercely regional, even local, in sentiment. In Paris there was a deafening silence on one crucial point. Bernard Fall expressed it in his last book: “Neither North Vietnam nor the State Department explains the existence of guerrilla warfare in South Vietnam in the years from 1956 to 1960.” It is Southerners who mounted this struggle. They were generally not Communists; the first armed resistance against Diem came in fact from the battalions of the anti-Communist Hoa-Hao sect. The heritage of peace will properly belong to these people. The NLF, if it forms the basis of the future government in the South, will have to take them into account. Hanoi will have to like that or lump it. As for Washington, its “aggression from the North” mythology has turned out to be disastrous for the interests of progressive, non-Communist Southerners. Johnson and Rusk seem to have delivered them over to the Northern Communists.

The Paris Falks have been mainly about relations between the DRV and the United States. But what about the relations of the DRV to the countries nearby? It has been the effect of U.S. policy to make the Vietnamese problem appear, to much of world opinion, as a patriotic struggle by Vietnamese to get rid of foreign control. Seen in that light, it is hard, as Averell Harrirnan and others whom Johnson sent periodically into orbit to explain U.S. policy discovered, to demolish the DRV case. Xuan Thuy plays the theme in Paris. “Is he a Vietnamese?” he said once, pointing to the un-Vietnamese-like shape and size of Harriman, “this man who talks about the need for a Vietnam ‘free from foreign interference’?”

But the strange battle of principles obscures two awkward problems. The Americans cannot be thrown into the sea. Unlike France in 1954, the United States has not come to a point where it is likely to turn its back on Asia; there will be no Dienbienphu for the United States, and many Asians, fearful of China, do not want to see U.S. withdrawal from Asia. Second, there is the danger, for Hanoi, that it may go out of the frying pan of U.S. coercion into the fire of the Chinese embrace. Although Hanoi now enjoys an hour on the center of the world stage, it can no more behave as if it lived in a vacuum than Poland can. Its “Russia" is China; its “Germany” is the United States. It may seem too coldly realistic to see things this way, when bombs have been raining down on the people of North Vietnam. But the negotiations will soon have to confront the solid issue of how China and the United States are going to affect life for a small nation painfully within the reach of both.

Ho himself is almost certainly more realistic on these matters than some of his heirs. Furthermore, he is distinctly cooler toward China, and less hostile toward the U.S.A., than most of his colleagues and his heirs (rumor sometimes surfaces that the United States is “waiting for Ho to die” in the hope that the DRV will then be “easier to deal with”; the result would probably be the opposite). Ho told American newsmen Harry Ashmore and William Baggs in 1967:

This may be difficult for you to believe. I am grieved not only when Vietnamese people are killed. I am also grieved when American soldiers are killed. I sympathise with their parents. So I tell our people they must always be prepared to welcome the Americans . . . when they come, as they may again one day, to offer us help in rebuilding our country.

Ho’s personal history includes experiences in the United States that affected him deeply; he wrote an admiring study of some great American figures, including FDR, Wilson, and Lincoln — to whom he turned for inspiration at a high point in his career, September 2, 1945, when writing the Proclamation of Independence of Vietnam. This is not typical of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement. One great difference concerns China. For most of Ho’s life, the Chinese Communists were obscure guerrillas and China was in disarray; for most of the life of the young men now rising in Hanoi, the Chinese Communists have been the mighty rulers in Peking, from which capital, once more, influence extends over all Asia. Not many Hanoi leaders would say what Ho said to Paul Mus, when negotiating with the French: “Better to sniff a little the shit of the French than to eat all our life that of the Chinese.”One senior member of the DRV delegation — a man thirty years younger than Ho — referred in conversation to the Chinese as “close brothers” and “kith and kin.”

So it is not certain that the men after Ho will be content, or able, to work out a way for Hanoi to be friendly both with China and with the United States. But that is perhaps the only path to security for Hanoi. Out of a flexible, middle position they could win room for maneuver — as Sihaunouk does. Otherwise the euphoria of their survival of U.S. military might may be short-lived. Will the United States draw the conclusions from these long-term realities, and encourage the moderates in Hanoi and in the NLF? The longer the talks dragged on without real results, the more ammunition was given to the proChinese liners. For did not Peking and the followers of Peking warn last spring that negotiations with the United States would get nowhere?


When the Talks began, most observers felt, as I did, that time was on Hanoi’s side. She had come to Paris in a position of some strength. Much had changed since earlier peace feelers. In January, 1966, Ho’s (belated) response to the bombing pause was extremely tough. The reason was that the Vietnamese Communists, especially the NLF, did not at that stage feel strong enough to come to the table. But Xuan Thuy came to Paris with two trump cards: the memory of the Tct offensive, and the crescendo of opposition within the United States to the war—which had culminated, it seemed to Hanoi, in the premature retirement of Johnson. Many Americans thought that the speech of March 31 was a dramatic gesture for peace, that the ball was now in the DRV court. But in retrospect it is clear that more of world opinion probably shared the DRV view — that the speech, for all its rhetoric justifying U.S. Vietnam policy, was essentially a confession that the policy had failed.

The first sessions were held in this atmosphere. Moreover, Hanoi succeeded in damaging the notion of “reciprocity.” In all solemnity, it offered to refrain from all attacks on the territory of the United States if the United States would refrain from all attacks on the territory of the DRV. Yet by the end of the summer the buoyancy of the Vietnamese had palpably faded. Harriman said to me in August: “ They are somewhat less arrogant now than when we first started.”For this change there arc perhaps three main explanations. The realization - it came late to the Vietnamese — that McCarthy was not a serious prospect for the White House, and the murder of Robert Kennedy, seemed to rob the war opposition within the United States of its political significance. Indeed by October, as Nixon rode high, it began to occur to the DRV that the new President might be worse than Johnson for them.

Second, the DRV had trouble with its allies. The decision to come to Paris was Hanoi’s alone. Moscow did not urge them to come; Peking urged them not to come. The NLF agreed, contrary to their position in January, 1966, but with misgivings. Ho probably sees the decision as a gamble; and he is completely responsible for its vindication. The Chinese jeered all the summer. The NLF showed signs of suspicion. Soviet tanks rolling into Prague brought fresh strains. The international peace movements, with which Hanoi is closely linked, and in which some members of the DRV delegation have for years played an active part, were proCzechoslovakia. There were some turbulent conversations at Choisy in late August and early September. One peace veteran said: “Every time U.S. imperialism is mentioned now, someone is likely to mention Russian imperialism.”

Even more important, the DRV men did increasingly less well from the publicity point of view. It was clear from the start that Harriman was the keener for quick progress, Xuan Thuy the keener for wide publicity. The publicity shrank. A senior member of the DRV delegation told me in a tone almost of depression: “As the Falks wear on, people from the outside tend to put both parties on an equal basis. We put out our stuff. The U.S. puts out its stuff. People stop reading both. They think our side is courteous. But they see that Harriman is courteous too. And we don’t have any means of matching the propaganda machine of the U.S.”

Weak cards

It could be said that the U.S. delegation did well, though the cards they field remained weak. The weakness may be summarized in six points. First, the stakes for the Vietnamese arc so much higher than for Americans that their will to persist is inevitably firmer.

Second, the United States is a democracy, and Johnson’s Vietnam policies could never overcome the handicap that Lens of millions of Americans came to think those policies a mistake. The DRV delegation was acutely aware of this — as Communists often are aware, curiously, of the dynamics of the democracy they are not themselves committed to. One day in the bar at the Avenue de Segur a North Vietnamese journalist quoted, with much satisfaction, two statements on the war by Americans. Mayor Lindsay spoke of an “unwanted war.” Roger Hilsman said that Washington “has failed to admit to itself that the American intervention in Vietnam has failed.” Said the Vietnamese: “And one is a Republican, one a Democrat, right? So both parties are against the war!”

Third, world diplomatic opinion tends, sometimes for objective reasons, sometimes for emotional reasons, to be hostile to the U.S. prosecution of the war. Dr. Phan Quang Dan, the Saigon physician and politician who was briefly in the Thicu government during 1968, told me in Saigon in 1965: “I am in favor of stepping up the war effort, it it can be done swiftly. One thing is certain: it is disastrous to have the greatest power on earth locked in combat with a tiny country over a long period, and the world will surely sec it.” An accurate prophecy.

Fourth, it seemed clear in Paris, not least in talking with South Vietnamese, that the cessation of the bombing, and the ensuing serious negotiations, would bring about a nasty crisis for the Saigon regime. The advance of the NLF to the conference table may do for its political standing what the Tet offensive did for its military standing.

Fifth, since the Tet offensive (to put it no earlier) it seemed that the Allied military situation was no longer good enough for them to expect to win militarily. And it has seemed a fair rule of thumb that in guerrilla war, so long as the guerrillas have not lost — as they did in the Philippines— then they have won.

Sixth, the United States has suffered from a terrible lack of clarity, even at the highest levels, about its aims in this war. How was it that Washington came to practice the “politics of escalation” of which Franz Schurmann wrote in 1966, and which is more fully laid bare in two more authoritative books in 1968?1 The evidence suggests it was not a matter of cynical doubledealing. Rather, it was a result of confusion about aims. The Administration zigzagged because the ebb and flow of pressures, from both inside the governmental machine and outside it, made a wobbling jelly of its objectives.

Sometimes, as in the Baltimore speech of April, 1965, Johnson adjusted his position under the influence ot the forces of dissent. Sometimes, as in the bombing spree that put an end to the peace feelers in Saigon and Warsaw late in 1966 (labeled “Marigold” by Washington), he lurched in the other direction under military influence.

In some statements, as Humphrey’s in Australia, the heart of U.S. aims seemed to be to contain China. In others, as William Bundy’s of August 15, 1967, it seemed to be to prevent reunification of Vietnam under Ho by securing an enduring “independent South Vietnam.” But then Harriman and Vance often spoke in Paris as if the United States were not opposed to reunification, so long as it was democratically done. Walt Rostow has told visitors that the fundamental point of the war is to “draw a line” against world Communism. Yet the Manila Communique of October, 1966, promises a complete Allied withdrawal from Vietnam within six months of a cease-fire, a commitment that evokes smiles from military men and oaths from Saigon officials. On July 9, 1966, in Saigon, the Italian and Polish participants in “Marigold” asked Ambassador Lodge to clarify U.S. aims on two points: Was the war limited to Vietnam or part of a wider conflict? Would the United States leave Vietnam after a settlement? To the surprise of the Pole and the Italian, Lodge could not answer these fundamental questions; he sought instructions from Washington.

No doubt the personality of Johnson further complicated the task of clarifying the war aims. His passion for secrecy led to the cutting off of the flow of “Marigold” information to State Department officials in the Vietnam Working Group who “exercise day-to-day control over the political side of the war and set up coordination with the Defense Department on military actions.” His gluttony for consensus, his lust to embrace the entire spectrum of a given controversy or division, his desire to be all things to all men — appealing qualities in many situations — seemed in the end to have robbed him of not only his credibility but his control.

By contrast, the DRV has for decades hammered away at its twin aims of independence and reunification, with very little modification or intragovernmcntal wavering. Clear and firm on what they held to be essential, they were thus free to maneuver on nonessentials. They have had no problem making world opinion understand what they seek. Even less have they had any problem in convincing their own people of what they seek. And when required to respond to a U.S. move, in diplomacy or on the battlefield, their clear policy position has generally enabled them to do so quickly. It may be that the North Vietnamese have carried out better than their opponents the precept of Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese theorist of war whose work many of them have studied: “Know the enemy and know yourself, and in a hundred battles you will win. a hundred victories.”


Through the prism of the Paris Talks, certain things about the war and its implications for world politics have become clear. In an extraordinary way, U.S. policy, like French policy before it, has had the effect of turning the simple, narrow men of Hanoi into international heroes. In their relation to their own people, and to world opinion, they have been lent a martyred glory which has eclipsed the flaws of their Communist doctrines and the limitations of their national perspective. Freedom? But these “lean warriors” — as Northerners are traditionally called in parts of South Vietnam — have a meager conception of freedom. Their regime is a dictatorship. They are not men to see and value what Dubček tried to do in Prague.

But such is no longer the question. The whole affair has plunged to a much lower level, and it is a bitter irony that the Free World has caused it to do so. You do not ponder political freedom when your very physical freedom is in question; in a dark prison cell, you lust for the sun and the sky, not for voting rights. U.S. policy has created a kind of prison situation for the centuries-old cause of Vietnamese freedom. Thus it has made heroes out of the (Communist) leadership which seeks to lead the Vietnamese out of the dark cell of subjugation and destruction, into the “free” air they will breathe when they become a nation free from foreign bombs and 600,000 foreign troops.

Washington lias transformed what was, a decade ago, a complex political problem into a simple, crying, human problem. All the rights and wrongs of South Vietnamese politics were smothered by a heavy military hand that was too crude to discern the political and psychological components of power. The final chapter in South Vietnam finds the once contemptible guerrillas face to face with the U.S. Mission; the center, the political tissue of South Vietnam, has been burnt out. Now the lean warriors of the North parade as the only possible saviors of the most basic existence of their people! No wonder it has been said in high Communist circles that Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy could not have been bettered as a grand design to give glitter to Communism in Indochina.

It has also become clear that the international political context in which the Geneva conference was an appropriate vehicle has gone. It is hard to imagine China and the U.S.S.R. acting in concert, as they did at Geneva, 1954, to influence their Vietnamese confreres; or to imagine China accepting the U.S.S.R. as co-chairman of an international conference which will affect the fate of Asian Communism. Nor is British co-chairmanship any longer apt. Her collection of Eastern possessions now consists of the single jewel of Hong Kong. Even her interest, official and unofficial, in the region has withered remarkably. The Japanese, if their present hesitant moves toward a more virile diplomacy in Asia strengthen over the next half year, would seem a better bet as co-chairman from the non-Communist world than Britain.

Crumbling blocs

Indeed the entire “post-war world” of which Geneva seemed a natural furnishing has gone; and Vietnam has hastened its demise. The blocs have crumbled; France and Rumania have set the pace. Even the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia may soon confirm the changed situation, if it turns out that it has cost Moscow more than it has cost Prague. In Asia, Dulles managed to patch together SEATO, albeit without most of Southeast Asia, soon after the Geneva conference, to warn and contain China. Today the one major Asian member of SEATO, Pakistan, is among the few nations with which China has warm relations.

Above all, a gap has opened up between the U.S.A., in the Johnson period, and the rest of the West. It is hard to find a senior Foreign Office man in Western Europe who by conviction supports Johnson’s Vietnam policy. Even publicly, half of NATO has taken the podium at the UN to urge a halt to the bombing of the DRV.

Of course the gap is partly based on solid differences of interest. The United States has long been a Pacific power, and has concerns there which a Europe increasingly turning in upon itself, feathering its nest for a better life after decades of war and tyranny, cannot be expected to understand. But there are differences of perception too. Johnson seemed to feel less at ease with the cynical sophisticates of Europe than with the needy Asians who would appreciate his efforts to feed, clothe, house them — the way he learned during the New Deal - with his generous left hand, as he shielded them from Communism — the way he learned in the Truman and Dulles years — with his strong right hand.

New politics

Many Europeans saw long ago that Washington had given too much weight to Communism as a global force in its analysis of Vietnam. Talks at the Quai d’Orsay left me wondering if there is not a greater chasm between French and U.S. thinking on Vietnam than between U.S. and Soviet thinking. High French officials simply do not believe anymore in pressure being applied by a bloc; instead they believe in playing one member of a bloc against other members of the same bloc. The French like to think they are more “progressive” than Washington; more zealous for land reform in Asia, for instance. I doubt that they are more progressive than that “left hand” of Johnson. Rather they are more Machiavellian. They have got in on the ground floor of a newperiod of world politics. In this period there is taking place a resurgence of national, cultural, local politics, at the expense of abstract, supralocal, international politics.

Abstractions such as “international Communism,” “Free World,” “Afro-Asian solidarity” arc less credible than they were a decade ago. International organizations and institutions that were established in the years of post-war idealism feel the increasing tug of centrifugal forces. So do political units, such as Nigeria, which tried to embrace multiple cultural, ethnic, or national units within the ambit of a single sovereignty. Again and again we see “particularism” obstruct or confound the claims of an abstract or universal force or system. The scientism of Walt Rostow, with its inarticulate assumption that “man” means “rational Western man,” has had its upward flight to utopia shot down by primitive Vietnam peasants. The idiosyncracies of nationalism have shattered the solidarity which Comrade Mikhail Suslov still tries to claim for “proletarian internationalism.”

The American tribulations in Vietnam have not been a triumph for international Communism. Indeed, what an irony the concept of “international Communism” must be to Hanoi, which has suffered so grievously (if silently) as a result of the nonexistence of international Communist solidarity! Hanoi harbors few illusions about China and the U.S.S.R. Both have let it down too often; both view Vietnam primarily in terms of their relationship with the U.S.A. What ultimately confounds the Suslovs and the Rostows alike is the irreducible Vietnameseness of the Vietnamese. One recalls the report of the French writer Jacques Doyon, recently returned from a tour of the Mekong Delta, of a conversation with a prominent official, who docs his work (and keeps his secrets) alongside the American pacification men who drive up in jeeps, smart and spruce in big boots, dossiers under their arms. The Vietnamese spoke of his twenty-year-old nephew; “He went to join the Viet Cong six months ago; it was his romantic crisis. A few days ago he came back. We welcomed him with great joy.... People are like that here.”

One can easily exaggerate the extent of the setback the United States has had in Vietnam. The recovery will probably be quick, as was that of France after Algeria. Nor should it be forgotten that Washington has exercised some restraint. In contrast to France, the United States has had much more force in reserve than it used. For a mixture of political and moral considerations, the war, from the U.S. point of view, has been kept to a limited one. For all that, the war has demonstrated what might be termed the “powerlessness of power.” Even if the hawks had held sway at every point, the result may only have been more destruction. The crucial distinction came to be that between the power to destroy and the power to make one’s political will prevail. In the latter sense the power of the Pentagon did prove to be powerless. Mao was right to speak of the United States as a “paper tiger” in Vietnam. Its power itself was powerless in the measure that it did not carry enough of the people with it to make its will prevail politically. Similarly, the Soviet tanks may have been powerless in Prague last August. Will the historians of the future perhaps detect the symbol of a significant shift in U.S. consciousness in the titles of three notable books written by U.S. politicians and published in the last two years; The Arrogance of Power by Fulbright, The Limits of Power by McCarthy, and The Discipline of Power by Ball?


In the long view, what pattern might the Talks follow in thensecond stage, now that the DRV is free from attacks against its territory? The issue of the bombing came to acquire an exaggerated significance. Both sides have sometimes allowed it to obscure the reality that the war is about the future of the South. The United States has hoped for too much from the bombing, and the DRV probably has hoped for too much from its cessation. General Gavin once characterized the bombing policy this way; It is as if “I had told you I could beat you at a game of chess, and you had challenged me to a game, and halfway through, as I was obviously losing, I kicked over the board and said: ‘See, I beat you.’ ” On November 1 the chess game was resumed. Its purpose is to create a polity in South Vietnam reflecting the realities of military strength within the country, the wishes of the South Vietnamese people, and the interests of the great powers.

Though the war was already fierce before the bombing began, its cessation does not re-create that prebombing situation. The issues of war and peace are determined by myriad factors, but the ultimate one may be “will”; it is the will to fight on to military victory that seemed to slacken. This is clearly true of the U.S. side. It may be partly true of the DRV as well. A Frenchman who knows Le Due Tho well observed: “He feels the time has now come for reconstruction of the country.” The battle of principles which the first five months of Talks constituted has become muted; the “theologies” have now been unburdened; a certain clarification of the issues becomes apparent; a practical spirit pushes to the surface alongside the dogma and the mistrust. The unthinkable begins to be thought; an American leader may even say soon what MendesFrance said recently to a friend: “Sometimes I ponder France’s terrible mistake; why ever did we have to fight the Vietnamese for eight years!”


For the U.S. side, the approach of the election encouraged demystification. President Johnson may have felt in October that he must make a final effort to bring to fruition the seeds of a peaceful settlement he felt he had planted on March 31. Certainly Harriman, depressed after months of impasse, regretful that he had not had the opportunity to repeat his Laos achievement, conscious that a Nixon victory would bring his career to a close, made intensified moves, both in communication with Washington and in some very frank exchanges with the DRV men during tea breaks, to get the bombing stopped.

Among the North Vietnamese, early October brought sober reassessments. A month previously they had debated the possibility of breaking off the Talks, but were deterred by the fear that a tougher U.S. Administration might then escalate the war, free of any moral and political pressures to seek peace. As I write, neither the motives nor the effects of the bombing halt and the moves preceding it are clear, but in October I observed on the DRV side a greater readiness than before to take seriously the U.S. political situation, especially the fact that time was running out for Harriman. (Who knows if time may not also be running out for the seventy-eightyear-old Ho?) Books recounting Harriman’s previous negotiating work were being studied at Choisy - Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days was one of them — as were the Indochina policies of the Eisenhower Administration. Just as Hanoi expected to get better terms from post-war French governments which included Communists than from governments after 1947 which did not, so it now weighed the prospect that the new U.S. Administration might offer worse terms than Harriman.

In the first week of October a senior member of the delegation, in a talk with me, frankly showed a desire to appreciate Harriman’s position as a “dove” within the LLS. Administration — mixed with extreme agitation that, at that date, there was still no softening on the bombing. “We have given him something,” he said. “We have tried to help him, as you keep putting it. But he does not seem to commit himself to understand the moves we have made toward him. We have assured him there will be a settlement after the bombing stops, that this is why we came to Paris.” The same week Le Due Tho, Xu an Thuy, and others held long sessions, during which meetings with the press were mostly canceled. (Shortly before he left for Hanoi, I watched Le Due Tho taking a break from one of these sessions. Neat and severe in a black Chinese-style tunic, his smooth brown face capped with white hair glistening in the sun, he paced the volleyball court, wheeling his arms in the air. At each end he turned abruptly, his limbs charged with purpose, his eyes sharp in concentration—with an odd glance across to the Western visitor in conversation at one side of the court.)

The central issue is no longer the military importance of the bombing, but the political importance of the contending Southern elements. Both the NLF and Saigon have been preparing themselves for the enlarged Talks. The NLF sent diplomats to Paris, and Saigon has tried to patch up relations with France. The NLF plans open political activity in the South, while President Thieu, welcoming Big Minh back from Bangkok, seemed to ease himself out of his right-wing straitjacket.

Waiting for the end

In broad terms there have always been three possibilities for the South. It could go the way of South Korea, as the United States has tried to ensure; but this is out of the question, since the NLF is evidently stronger than Saigon. It could become part of a unified Vietnam under Hanoi; but this too is out of the question for the present (as the DRV recognizes by coming to the negotiating table). It could become leftist and neutral, without foreign bases, developing a relationship with the North according to the evolution of its own political forces. The task of the Talks now must center upon finding an accommodation between these political forces. The United States may find opportunities to steer the NLF away from Hanoi’s influence, toward purely Southern concerns and policies. Enormous force has been used to try to stop Hanoi’s activities in the South, yet so far no effort at all has been made to encourage and facilitate NLF resistance to Hanoi’s influence.

The hour of the NLF seems to be at hand. Any settlement of the war will necessarily mean a new Saigon government, so Thieu is naturally on the defensive and the NLF on the (political) offensive. Harriman is prepared to deal bluntly with Saigon, as he dealt bluntly with Phoumi, the Laotian military leader, when the time came to elevate and support Souvanna Phouma. What is less clear is whether the Saigon leaders will try to stand firm against pressure to make way for a more leftist regime, or whether, sniffing the new atmosphere, they may move swiftly to the left, even turning upon the United States as “strangers from abroad”—Big Minh’s phrase in the October Foreign Affairs — and finding in an anti-U.S. position the one chance of salvaging a political future for themselves. Big Minh may have hinted at such a transformation when he wrote, enigmatically, on the eve of his return to Saigon: “. . . within the borders of South Vietnam, global and ideological considerations become somewhat academic. As we see it, the war in our country is simply the defense of our homes against aggression.” However that may be, both Southern groups may be forced, at last, to confront their own people and be tested by popular reaction.

For their part, the DRV men will have to juggle once more their two aims — independence and reunification — and choose between them. They may now be ready to delay reunification in order to secure independence from foreign coercion. They agreed to talk with Saigon, and can be expected to accept less than a fully Communist government in Saigon — for a while; and to agree to a gradual withdrawal of the foreign troops from South Vietnam.

The Talks may become quite volatile and confused. Protracted wrangling may follow the enlargement of the Talks, especially over the exact status of the NTF. Each side sits on a knife edge in its relations with various allies (and also, in the case of the United States, in relation to domestic political opinion). The DRV will need to display all the suppleness and resilience of Vietnamese bamboo if it is to get the NLF, Peking, and Moscow to accept the eventual settlement. The danger will never disappear of a sudden reversion to outright military struggle, if diplomatic equilibrium should break down; both sides contain military men who think it a shame to compromise when military victory is “just around the corner.”

Interpretation of what constitutes a “lull” may cause endless argument. It is easy to view a lull as a breather preceding renewed attack—if the, will is there to do so. At the time of writing, some in Washington describe the startling decline in enemy activity as a sign of weakness rather than as a sign of restraint. This way of thinking has frequently prevailed — it is a version of the “light at the end of the tunnel” argument — only to be speedily confronted with new proof of the capacity of the Communists to bounce back in force. There is reason to believe Hanoi has begun to negotiate a solution; but there is little reason to believe it could not resume the battle with full ferocity if it wished.

Illustrations are from Engineers of the Renaissance by Bertrand Gille. The M.I.T. Press, Cambridge. Copyright © 1966.

  1. H. S. Ashmore and W. C. Baggs, Mission to Hanoi; D. Kraslow and S. H. Loory, The Secret Search for Peace in Vietnam.