January 12, 2017

1968. Washington's Diplomatic Games Over Vietnam

The Paris Peace Negotiations Begin Despite Ongoing Fighting
Members of the National Guard standing in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago during the antiwar protests at the Democratic Convention in August 1968 (Photo by Barton Silverman - source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

April 3, 1968

Hanoi Radio's surprise announcement that its Communist government is willing to sit down and talk with US officials about the Vietnam War hit Washington today like a spring freshet of giggle water.

Even the dourest military hawks and hens working in the Pentagon were so taken aback that I saw a general absentmindedly salute a sergeant.

When most of official Washington came to work this morning the gloom about the Vietnam War was as deep and clinging as the mud of the Mekong Delta, because it looked like President Johnson had turned a historic gesture into a monumental and unnecessary goof. Mr. Johnson, who overnight became an American folk hero by retiring from politics and ordering a bombing moratorium over North Vietnam, neglected to explain the military limitations of the deescalation in the bombing. And some of his critics, such as Arkansas Senator Fulbright, accused the White House of not only misleading the Communists, who the President was trying to lure to the negotiating table, but also of playing wheeler-dealer politics with the war.

However, Fulbright and the others had jumped the gun, and if you'll pardon the metaphor, for once the hawks in Hanoi have made monkeys out of their friends, the doves on Capitol Hill.

But as this day wore on, some of the initial exhilaration has worn off. In fact, there are some second thoughts about the President's limited moratorium. Because if it does not work—and the Communists use it to mount another major offensive in the South and kill more thousands of American soldiers—then the US government and the people will feel morally bound to punish such international chicanery.

So you see, while there are opportunities for peace and diplomatic exercise between Washington and Hanoi, there also are grave and great dangers that a failure may produce a larger and more terrible war in Vietnam.

This is Bill Downs in Washington.

Bill Downs

ABC Washington

May 16, 1968

The weekly casualty report from Saigon today, combined with Communist stubbornness at the Vietnam peace talks in Paris, served to spread feeling of gloom over much of official Washington—the kind of atmosphere that could turn to bitterness and frustration at a very delicate time.

As you probably have heard by now, US headquarters in Saigon announced that 562 Americans were killed last week in the Vietnam fighting—the highest weekly death toll of this unfortunate war. Another 2,200 were wounded, half of them seriously enough to require hospitalization. These losses were even higher than during the big Buddhist New Year's offensive last February.

What makes the latest losses hurt even more—the record casualty list was set for the week during which ambassadors from Washington and Hanoi sat down in Paris to talk about ways to end the Vietnam conflict.

US Ambassadors Averell Harriman and Cyrus Vance have kept their cool and played the diplomatic game with the North Vietnamese envoys. In Saigon, the US Military Command also has played the game—for not only has President Johnson's limited moratorium on the bombing of North Vietnam been observed, combat dispatches say that the US Air Forces have sharply reduced their aerial attacks below the 20th parallel bomb line despite the best flying weather of the year.

In Paris, the United States proposed among other things that both sides pull back and restore the integrity of the Demilitarized Zone, leaving it to be the truly neutral strip of buffer zone for which it originally was intended.

However, during the first week of the Paris diplomatic talks, the Hanoi Communists have refused to discuss even that. Instead the North Vietnam negotiators have virtually issued an ultimatum: the US must stop the bombing of all of North Vietnam and halt all hostilities, there and now, and do it unconditionally. And the Hanoi spokesmen declare that North Vietnam will not offer anything in return.

Some diplomats say the first week in Paris is part of a Communist propaganda offensive. Perhaps Ambassadors Harriman and Vance will tell the Hanoi mission that the US does not pay for propaganda battles with American lives.

This is Bill Downs in Washington.

Bill Downs

ABC Washington

June 4, 1968

Some three thousand years ago in China, philosophers were sometimes military men, and one of these philosophers wrote of strategy and tactics such little gems as "an army must learn to nibble like a duck when necessary . . . or swallow like a whale when it can."

Such ancient concepts of military conflict have been handed down over the centuries and taught to the modern-day makers of war. In applying them to the current war in Vietnam and the concurrent peace negotiations in Paris, it would be well for Americans to know about another ancient oriental philosophy of combat. This tenet holds that "negotiation is as much a part of successful warfare as is the battle."

Thus in Hanoi and Paris we see the North Vietnamese Communists applying the principle of "talk and fight." And while President Johnson declared a limited moratorium on the bombing of North Vietnam as proof of good faith to get to the negotiating table in France, the Hanoi leadership not only have ignored this gesture, but in fact have taken advantage of the deescalation in the Allied aerial attack to increase their shipment of guns and war materiel to the South.

And while it is repugnant to the Westerners to be killing men on the battlefront while warring governments discuss peace on the diplomatic front, to the oriental Communist leaders this is part of an ancient strategy proved-out long before Confucius.

All wars are a test of national wills, and the current war in Vietnam, certainly one of the most unpopular and controversial conflicts in US history, appears likely to test the American patience and public will more than most.

General Westmoreland is winding up his duties as the United States top commander in Vietnam to become Army Chief of Staff. He appeared today before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill.

But it was a solemn and concerned Westmoreland who later talked with reporters. There were no statements about the "beginning of the end" and the "light at the end of the tunnel," which earlier prompted his critics to charge the General with irresponsible optimism over Vietnam.

But again Westmoreland made a startling assertion. He said that Allied intelligence reports indicated that the Communists had lost more men in the first five months of this year's hard fighting than they did in all of 1967.

The General declared that the enemy losses so far this year was an estimated 111,000 killed or wounded. If this figure is correct, it means the Vietnam Communists are losing men at the rate of more than seven hundred dead or injured a day.

It's a fantastic figure and difficult to accept. But if true, some old oriental military philosophy may have to be rewritten. For not only must an army learn to nibble like a duck or swallow like a whale, it must also be able to do these things before it is bled to death.

This is Bill Downs in Washington for the American Entertainment Network, a service of ABC News.