September 14, 2017

1967. President Johnson and Ho Chi Minh Exchange Personal Letters

Hanoi's Unclear Motives Divide Washington
President Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey watch the inaugural parade on January 20, 1965 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

March 26, 1967

Years ago at Easter time in the Downs household it was a test of childhood courage to crack the hard-boiled Easter eggs on the forehead. The trick was to use a lot of wrist-action and not let up when you rapped the small end of the egg on your noggin. Otherwise your forehead would end up with a lot of painful little bumps, and much laughter from the onlookers.

There was an uncharitable variation on this Easter holiday game. That was to color and secretly mark a raw egg, and then challenge someone to break it on his forehead. The result, of course, was fairly hilarious as your unsuspecting victim ended up with glutenous albumen and yolk running down his nose.

We don't know whether this is the origin of the show business phrase that goes, "he had egg on his face," which in television means the camera catches the performer unaware and unprepared, leaving him staring speechless into the lens that transmits his embarrassment live into a few million homes across the nation.

Which brings us to the national capital, where political "egg on the face" happens almost every day to some member of Congress or some Administration leader or some political pundit—and even news reporters.

But as this week in Washington ended, it appeared that the vociferous critics of the Johnson Administration's Far East policies—the so-called doves on Capitol Hill who have been lambasting the president and his cabinet for alleged warmongering in Vietnam—were the ones with egg on their faces.

The man who made them victims of this raw egg trick was none other than North Vietnam's old Bolshevik leader, the head of the Hanoi government, comrade Ho Chi Minh.

It has been the argument of the outspoken doves on Capitol Hill that the Johnson Administration has allowed to United States to drift more and more into a larger and larger war in Vietnam; that all the protestations of peace by the White House and the diplomatic search for a negotiated settlement of the war has been window-dressing, if not a facade to mislead the American people while the so-called hawks in the Administration increased both the scope and intensity of the struggle in Southeast Asia.

In other words, the doves have left the impression that if Lyndon Johnson really wanted a negotiated settlement with the North Vietnamese Communist leaders, some way, somehow he could get it. In the first place, they imply that all he would have to do would be to order a permanent, unilateral end to the bombing of the North. Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues would be so grateful that they would reciprocate by stopping their infiltration of the South. Everyone would frolic off to Geneva or some Vietnamese version of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone. Then everyone would go home peaceful and happy.

While President Johnson, Secretary of State Rusk, and Defense Secretary McNamara were on Guam for the little summit meeting with Saigon's Premier Kỳ last weekend, the doves issued warnings that it was just another council of war which would only escalate the fighting in Vietnam, again proving the insincerity of the Johnson Administration's protestations of peace.

But it was when the presidential party was returning from Guam, flying over the Pacific, that Ho Chi Minh broke the news, and incidentally that mythical political egg dripped down the beaks of the doves here in Washington.

Hanoi's propaganda radio broadcast to the world that President Johnson had indeed been most persistent in his attempts to get negotiations with North Vietnam. In fact, Mr. Johnson had taken the initiative and made an unprecedented first move by writing a personal letter to President Ho Chi Minh last February 8—the day the Buddhist New Year's truce was to begin—proposing direct talks between the United States and North Vietnam.

The president's letter was delivered to a North Vietnamese diplomatic representative in Moscow, presumably with the Kremlin acting as a go-between. Mr. Johnson proposed to Ho Chi Minh that the two governments undertake "serious and private discussions," and suggested that these talks take place in Moscow or, if this was unsuitable or inconvenient for the Hanoi regime, that the conference be held in a neutral Southeast Asian country such as Burma and its capital of Rangoon.

Furthermore and most significant, Mr. Johnson's letter told President Ho that, to make the bi-national talks productive, the president was "prepared to order a cessation of bombing against your country and the stopping of further augmentation of US forces in South Vietnam..."

The president qualified that offer, however, with the stipulation that he would take these steps only "as soon as I am assured that infiltration into South Vietnam by land and by sea has stopped." As we said, the letter was sent at the beginning of the four-day New Year's truce, a truce that could have turned into a full-fledged armistice had Hanoi so delivered.

Hanoi radio not only provided these details of Mr. Johnson's secret letter but it also published the text of Ho Chi Minh's reply to the White House, a long and polemical rejection refusing the president's olive branch and repeating Hanoi's earlier conditions that "if there are to be peace negotiations...the United States must first of all stop unconditionally its bombing raids and other acts of war against North Vietnam."

Here in Washington, it was then revealed that US diplomats in Moscow had made four earlier peace proposals secretly and directly to the Hanoi representatives, and that President Johnson's extraordinary personal letter to Ho Chi Minh had been a move designed to emphasize the importance and sincerity of all the White House offers.

What puzzled official Washington—and still is a mystery here—was why did Ho Chi Minh suddenly "blow" the story at this particular time. If, as has been reported, the Communist leader was intent on dividing the American people on the peace issue, he cut a lot of ground out from under the Congressional doves in this Capitol as well as from under the antiwar groups throughout the country.

Furthermore, President Ho's surprise revelation of the secret correspondence between himself and Lyndon Johnson also served to verify a Pentagon argument that the New Year's truce ushering in the Buddhist year of the sheep was only a bit of Communist chicanery to make the United States and its allies the goats of Hanoi's overall strategy.

Secretary McNamara authorized the release of reconnaissance photographs taken over North Vietnam during the four-day ceasefire last month, showing scores of coastal vessels, scows, and supply barges unloading tons of supplies and war materiel just north of the demilitarized zone.

The photographs showed thousands of peasants and Hanoi military personnel offloading this stuff and placing it in hundreds of trucks which carted it off to scattered supply depots. Convoys of these trucks were photographed heading southward down the Ho Chi Minh trail which runs through neighboring Laos.

The point of this intelligence about the enemy was not that Hanoi should not use the Tet truce period to improve its military position; presumably the South Vietnamese and US and Allied commanders on the ground also used the temporary ceasefire for the same purpose.

The point of the reconnaissance photographs was that it must have taken weeks of planning and preparation to collect the supplies and marshal the boats, trucks, and personnel to take advantage of the four days of military grace. In other words, while President Johnson was making four separate secret appeals for negotiations with Hanoi, and while he was discarding diplomatic protocol to write a personal letter to the president of an unrecognized government, the Hanoi Communist leaders were making massive arrangements to continue and intensify the fighting.

In retrospect, there can be little doubt that the first of the Russian-made 140-mm rocket mortar used by the Viet Cong for the first month; the initial deliveries of the mortars and their tubes were made during the intensive resupply activity during the New Year's truce.

Although the Hanoi propaganda "blowing" of the Johnson-Ho Chi Minh letters was also a blow to the antiwar groups opposing President Johnson, the revelation did not stop the criticism last week, nor will it in the future.

However, the North Vietnamese Communist leader inadvertently made the current mission of Vice President Hubert Humphrey much easier. Mr. Humphrey set out today on a two-week tour of major European capitals, ostensibly to discuss a series of nuclear and economic problems involving our allies there. But part of the vice president's job also will be to report on the general situation in Southeast Asia and to elicit support and sympathy for US policies in that part of the world. Mr. Humphrey will not have to prove the sincerity of US offers for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam—Ho Chi Minh did that.

Although when he returned to Washington last Tuesday evening President Johnson emphasized that no momentous decisions were made, the Guam conference did seem to clear the air here in Washington.

The United States would continue to search out the road to the negotiating table, the president said, but it was obvious that the North Vietnamese are not interested in peace at this time, and Ho Chi Minh had proved this disinterest.

The war would continue, and although the president did not say it, it would not be exactly "more of the same." Before the Guam meeting started, there had been a definite shift in bombing targets in the North. Not only transport, communications, and Hanoi's army installations came under attack, but also the main power plant supplying electricity to the northern capital has been hit, as well as the country's only steel mill. US Navy shelling has been extended to the shoreline north of the demilitarized zone, and for the past two weeks Navy planes have been mining the rivers and coastal ports which are the major resupply points used by shallow-draft cargo boats.

Secretary of Defense McNamara and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, testified before a closed session of the House Armed Services Committee last Thursday, and afterward revealed two interesting intelligence determinations about the Viet Cong enemy.

First, Communist documents captured in Viet Cong base camps taken during Operation Junction City confirmed that the increased shortages of food, medicine, and supplies was creating friction among the Southern guerrilla units and their regular army allies from the North. Both McNamara and Wheeler warned that it was too early to place much significance on this inter-Communist bickering, but the same documents indicated that the friction seemed to be expanding to include disputes over unit leadership and even combat tactics.

The other development discussed at the Guam conference was that the captured documents showed that the Viet Cong guerrilla leaders, as well as the Hanoi regular army commanders, were grossly exaggerating their military position in the South—in fact, telling Ho Chi Minh and his generals what they want to hear instead of what actually is happening in their costly engagements with the Allied forces. Intelligence monitoring of the guerrilla radio reports to the North have confirmed that the Hanoi government has a much rosier picture of the Communist position in the South than the facts merit. Ho Chi Minh, in fact, suffers from a credibility gap—if he believes the military messages sent by his own commanders.

No one at the Pentagon will speculate about the significance of these signs of deterioration in the guerrilla organization and its communications, but it will be an interesting pair of developments to keep an eye on in the future.

And as Secretary McNamara repeatedly points out, there certainly has been no outward evidence that the Viet Cong is about to collapse. In fact, as the week in Washington ended, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops were making a desperate effort to seize the military initiative in at least three major attacks.

The Viet Cong launched three major attacks this week, employing their new Russian-made, long range, heavy rocket mortars as their major assault weapon. The guerrilla attacks came against US units in the Tây Ninh Province northwest of Saigon and the Cambodian border; in the Central Highland provinces of Pleiku and Kon Tum; and simultaneously the Viet Cong units hit US Marine troops in the Quảng Trị Province north of Da Nang.

At the Pentagon, the Army's Vietnam intelligence section says these heavy and scattered Viet Cong assaults, scattered as they are from north to south, have been extremely costly to the enemy.

"They just don't make sense," one officer just back from Vietnam said. What he did not say was what everyone in this town is hoping: that the Viet Cong may be desperately trying to save a hopeless situation in one last spasm of battle and bloodletting before the collapse. But unfortunately, as of now, it's only hope.

This is Bill Downs reporting from Washington.