August 22, 2017

1967. Washington's Diplomatic Posturing Over Peace Negotiations

Rumors of Potential Peace Talks Between Washington and Hanoi
"Napalm air strikes raise clouds into gray monsoon skies as houseboats glide down the Perfume River toward Hue in Vietnam on February 28, 1963, where a battle for control of the old Imperial City ended with a Communist defeat. Firebombs were directed against a village on the outskirts of Hue" (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

February 5, 1967

Beginning this week, members of the Buddhist religion around the world begin the celebration of their celestial new year, an occasion called Tet. According to the Oriental horoscope, each new year is named after one of twelve animals who answered the summons of the great Buddha many centuries ago to celebrate his holy eminence, and in the coming new year Buddhists will live the next twelve months under the sign of the sheep.

According to some venerable Oriental astrologists, many of them in Vietnam, the year of the Sheep is a particularly good one for the settlement of differences. For this reason alone the coming of Tet would have significance for the war in Southeast Asia and in Vietnam particularly, where some local generals on both sides of the conflict govern their military decisions according to their horoscopes and the advice of the nearest Buddhist soothsayer on hand.

However, the Buddhist New Year also is called by other names with different connotations—other meanings, even—for the Americans on the diplomatic offensive here in Washington as well as for the US military command in Saigon.

The year of the Sheep is also called the year of the Ram, or the year of the Lamb, and sometimes the year of the Goat.

As this week in Washington ended, it would appear that the diplomatic postures of the US government, like that of the Communist regime of North Vietnam, were strikingly similar. On the surface, at least, both Washington and Hanoi were trying to maintain the outward stance of the buck ram, righteously challenging the world as master of his domain. But very, very quietly behind the scenes, the buck was making most conciliatory and lamb-like sounds to end the agony of the Vietnam War.

Overshadowing both these efforts was the determination of the conciliators in Hanoi and Washington that their government would not be cuckolded into a humiliating kind of peace, both determined that Tet would not mean they would wear the derisive horns of the Goat.

Thus it is clear that if the world's peacemakers, now working so diligently in the backstreets of diplomacy to arrange negotiations for the Vietnam War, must also find a way to satisfy the question of "face." Face, or "face saving," has sometimes been called the basic principle of life in the Far East. Men have been known to commit suicide if they somehow have fallen so low in the eyes of their neighbors as to bring disgrace on themselves and their ancestors.

However, the matter of face is not peculiar only to the Orient. It also is an overriding factor in the most advanced nations of the Occident. We in the West call it "national pride."

This past week in Washington began in sadness with the burial of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. But the week ended in an atmosphere of hope, as the Capitol was flooded with murmurs and whisperings that American efforts to establish some kind of dialogue with the North Vietnam government at long last was meeting with at least partial success.

In fact, it was Hanoi which was responsible for stirring up the eddies of peace talk that swirled through this city. A week earlier, Hanoi radio broadcast an interview statement from North Vietnam's Foreign Minister Nguyễn Duy Trinh, in which Trinh stated that there just possibly "could" be across-the-table negotiations with the United States—but "only after" an unconditional cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam by US planes.

Washington and Saigon authorities were still trying to fathom the significance of Trinh's statement when the State Department received confidential word from an undisclosed source that the foreign minister's broadcast statement was indeed intended by Hanoi to be of great importance, and that Washington should so regard it. If true, then North Vietnam was contemplating a major change in her policy toward the struggle of the National Liberation Front seeking the overthrow of the Saigon government. Previously Hanoi's conditions for negotiating a settlement of the conflict had called for four points, including the previous and immediate withdrawal of all US and foreign forces from the South and the per se recognition of the political wing of the Viet Cong guerrillas as the only spokesman for the people of South Vietnam—and so-called "free elections," Communist-style, for all the nation to establish a Hanoi-type regime for both the North and South.

The question raised by the North Vietnam broadcast was: had Foreign Minister Trinh dropped three of the four original preconditions to negotiations in order to get to the negotiating table.

Washington's dove-like rumor mongers were bolstered in their grapevine peace campaign by a number of things, including the revelation by the Pentagon that during the last six months of 1966 the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops into the South had shown some falling off.

Defense Secretary McNamara, however, went to great pains to insist that the supply of men and materiel to the Viet Cong had by no means stopped. In fact, he indicated that the infiltration had stepped up again about the first of the calendar year.

It was also reported without official confirmation that President Johnson had reacted to the worldwide furor over alleged bombings of civilians in Hanoi by ordering a cessation of air action against military targets within a five mile radius from the center of the North Vietnam capital. However, the Pentagon bluntly refused to admit that such a self-imposed stricture on US military planes existed. When reporters last Tuesday and Wednesday pointed out that air attacks generally on Communist territory had fallen off sharply, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, personally intervened to straighten out the questioning reporters.

"The lessened number of aerial sorties against North Vietnam," Wheeler declared, "was due solely to the weather and the tail end of the monsoon season which is buffeting the region." Furthermore, the General asserted the weather in Hanoi's Red River Delta for the past couple of weeks has been just plain lousy. "It's lousy today," he said, "and the forecast is that it will be lousy next week and possibly the week after."

No one was saying it out loud at the Pentagon, the White House, or anywhere else, but the silent consensus was that, whoever he is, the weather forecaster for the Allied Air Forces in Southeast Asia should have gotten the "diplomat of the week" award.

On Tuesday the State Department made a cautious admission that the broadcast interview with Foreign Minister Trinh was getting "careful study."

On Wednesday Secretary of State Dean Rusk broke his self-imposed silence concerning the upheavals in Communist China and related the difficulties of Mao Tse-tung's new "cultural revolution" to neighboring North Vietnam. Peking's troubles, Rusk opined, might give the Communist leaders of Hanoi "more freedom of action" in finding a way to peace negotiations.

On Thursday President Johnson called a full-dress news conference and appeared before TV cameras and radio microphones to assure that his words would have a worldwide hearing. The chief executive put on a philosophical performance, and it soon became clear that he was addressing the leaders of North Vietnam as much as he was the one hundred or so reporters who crowded into the East Room of the White House.

Mr. Johnson carefully restated his position regarding the question of peace talks to end the Southeast Asian fighting.

"We have made clear that if the other side desires to discuss peace at any time...that we will be very happy to have appropriate arrangements made to see that such is carried out," the President said. "Where we would talk...and who would talk...and what we would talk about...are all matters that can be worked out by the two nations involved."

But the most significant thing to come out of Mr. Johnson's news conference was his returning time and again to the cautious theme that the American people should not get their hopes too high that a negotiated end to the Vietnam fighting is in the making.

"In all candor," he asserted, "I must say that I'm not aware of any serious effort that the other side has made, in my judgment, to bring the fighting to a stop...and to stop the war." At least three times the President pointed out the lack of what he called a "serious effort" by Hanoi to demonstrate any serious intent to come to the negotiating table. In other words, by the reverse-English standards of international diplomacy practiced in public, the President of the United States was openly telling Ho Chi Minh, Foreign Minister Trinh, and other leaders of the North Vietnamese government: "show me!"

When a reporter laid it on the line and asked Mr. Johnson just what he would expect Hanoi to do that would justify ordering an end to the bombing of North Vietnam, the President's reply seemed to be almost a plea.

"Just almost any step would be enough," he declared, adding, "They haven't taken any as yet..."

As we said, the flurry of peace rumors which still are circulating through Washington was touched off by a broadcast interview with Hanoi's Foreign Minister Nguyễn Duy Trinh. The reporter who did the interview was Wilfred Burchett, an Australian who this correspondent met during World War II while covering the Allied armies in Europe and then later during the occupation days of Japan.

Taking into consideration Burchett's open and avowed Communism, nevertheless he was a competent and thorough reporter. Today Burchett followed up his scoop interview with Foreign Minister Trinh with another news story from Hanoi to the English-language newspaper Yomiuri in Tokyo. Burdchett's dispatch, datelined last Friday, describes Trinh's statement as a "declaration that cessation of US bombardments could lead to talks between North Vietnam and the United States." It was made to test the sincerity of Washington's frequent expressions of a desire for peace, for negotiations and so forth, the Burchett story goes on.

"Hanoi feels it has opened the door and demonstrated its good will...and that it's up to Washington to make the next move...If Johnson is sincere, he must definitely halt the bombardments, start the talks, and see what steps are possible next..."

Again, neither the Hanoi government nor Burchett's news story mentions other conditions for going to the negotiation table, other than a pledge to call off the bombing of North Vietnam.

Thus Hanoi and Washington would seem to be in accord about the desirability of negotiations, but there still remains the problem of "face"—how to get to the bargaining table without tripping over national pride.

The Burchett dispatch to Tokyo mentions this, too.

"If Washington concludes that Foreign Minister Trinh's statement was made from a position of weakness, and the American hawks should insist that now is the time to hit Vietnam harder than ever," says the Communist reporter, "then that would be a major blunder."

"Hanoi is prepared for such a hawk-like reaction," Burchett continues. "However, Hanoi's statement that talks could start if the bombardment is halted is made from a position of strength—not weakness."

As if to prove the point before the Buddhist New Year, Viet Cong guerrillas again infiltrated a major American ammunition dump just north of Saigon this weekend and caused considerable damage.

The United States also demonstrated its position of strength over the weekend. There were some 77 fighter-bomber missions over North Vietnam today, and a B-52 raid on a North Vietnam Army base camp on the Hanoi side of the Demilitarized Zone north of the 17th parallel.

However, 77 Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers over the North is about one half of what the US Tactical Command has been sending there in the patter of aerial assault during the past several months. "Bad weather," says the Saigon weatherman. None of those 77 US planes got any closer to Hanoi than seventeen miles.

The Buddhist New Year celebrations begin next Monday with another one of those mutually-agreed ceasefires, supposedly arranged in secret conclave between representatives of the Saigon and Hanoi governments.

Saigon has agreed that the temporary armistice should last for four days. The Communists say they will observe a ceasefire for seven days.

Word from South Vietnam today is that the Saigon government now is reconsidering its position and is ready to confer with enemy envoys to extend the truce to match Hanoi's seven day period.

The United States and Allied forces will observe whatever armistice is satisfactory to the Kỳ government.

It's generally agreed here in Washington that the coming days and weeks are important ones for Southeast Asia. If you're an optimist, the question must arise, "What happens to the New Year's ceasefire if there is no fighting on the eighth day?"

It may turn out to be the year of the Lamb after all.

This is Bill Downs for ABC in Washington.