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Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968
Volume I, Vietnam, 1964, Document 227


227. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State11. Source: Department of State, Secretary's Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 65 D 330. Secret. Drafted by Imhof and approved by Rusk. Copies were sent to William and McGeorge Bundy.

  • SUBJECT
  • Southeast Asia: The Polish Proposals; Discussion of the French Position; Cambodia
  • PARTICIPANTS
  • The Secretary
  • Mr. Johannes V. Imhof, French Desk, WE
  • Ambassador Alphand, French Embassy
  • M. Roger Duzer, Counselor, French Embassy

Ambassador Alphand, at his request, called on the Secretary at 7:15 p.m. on July 1. One of the subjects discussed was Southeast Asia.

[Here follows discussion of Laos.]

Discussion of the French Position

The Secretary said he wished to discuss frankly the French position on Southeast Asia and the points which troubled us. As we saw it, the French position was based on the following points: 1) there should be no Communist takeover in Southeast Asia; 2) the problem cannot be resolved by military means; 3) there was no solid political structure in South Vietnam and it was unlikely that it would be possible to create such a solid structure; 4) there should be a political solution and France should reserve herself for an initiative in this direction; 5) a political solution required strong U.S. military presence in the area. Ambassador Alphand did not dispute any of these points.

The Secretary continued that we had three problems with regard to this position. One was fundamental, the two others were of a psychological nature. The fundamental problem was that we did not understand what was meant by a “political solution.” We realized, of course, that the war could not be won by military means alone, but, in our opinion, a political solution for the area had been reached through the 1954 and 1962 accords. We could not see any new solution which would not be much worse for the interests of the West.

Ambassador Alphand agreed that the 1962 agreement on Laos was an acceptable political solution. All that was required were the reconstitution of the three political tendencies and perhaps stronger controls. As to Vietnam, the only new element to be added to the 1954 accords was the concept of neutrality. The Secretary asked whether neutrality would apply to both North and South Vietnam. Ambassador Alphand said that it should, but suggested that it should be applied to South Vietnam first and that it should be gradually extended to the North.

The Secretary said that if the other side would leave South Vietnam alone, U.S. forces would be withdrawn. The only reason for U.S. military presence was the continued interference by Hanoi in South Vietnam. Ambassador Alphand agreed that U.S. military presence in South Vietnam was a result of the military activities of the other side. On the other hand, the U.S. had exerted a dominant political influence in South Vietnam immediately after the French withdrawal in 1954. The French had warned against this because they had been concerned about the reactions of the other side. The Secretary repeated that we had no desire to control South Vietnam and that our presence there would end as soon as the other side stopped its interference.

Ambassador Alphand said that the U.S. and France had a different evaluation of the situation in Communist China. The French felt that the Chinese were beset by their domestic problems. The Chinese were also in difficulties with the Soviets. The only sure way to solve the problem in Southeast Asia was a settlement guaranteed by the United States and China. The Secretary said that we had such an agreement with regard to Laos; it had not worked. Ambassador Alphand said that Laos had only been a partial settlement which had not worked because of the continued war in Vietnam.

The Secretary said he wanted to mention the two other points in the French position which gave us difficulties. He noted French skepticism about the possibility of creating a viable political structure in South Vietnam. Yet, the French could be of great help in creating such a viable structure by using their influence. Ambassador Alphand asked what France could do. Should it give advice to the Vietnamese politicians? The Secretary said that France should state openly that it is opposed to a Communist takeover of the area and that it was prepared to cooperate with South Vietnam to this end. Ambassador Alphand felt that France had already made it clear that she was opposed to a Communist takeover.

The Secretary said that the other point concerned U.S. military presence in the area, the need for which France appeared to recognize. On this, we could use some moral support. Standing aside and equating U.S. with Communist presence was definitely not helpful. Ambassador Alphand said that he recognized the difficulties. He alluded to France's own experience in Indochina until 1954. He recognized that France had received material support from the United States. Nevertheless, the war had cost France $8.5 billion and she had to fight the war alone. The Secretary said that it had always been his view that the West had made mistakes with regard to Indochina in the 1953–54 period.

Ambassador Alphand said that it was his personal opinion that a choice would have to be made sooner or later with. regard to the Vietnamese problem. The Secretary reiterated that if Peking and Hanoi would leave Southeast Asia alone, there would be no need for U.S. presence in the area. As long as this was not the case, the U.S. would remain. He said that if the French were to tell this to the Chinese, this would be an accurate statement of U.S. policy. Ambassador Alphand said that it was necessary to talk to the Chinese. The Secretary said that we have indeed talked to the Chinese. Perhaps we have talked more seriously with the Chinese than any other Western nation that has diplomatic relations with Communist China. The absence of such relations between the U.S. and China was no obstacle to serious talks. We have not ignored China but we haven't liked what we have heard in these talks. We want a decision from the Chinese that they, as well as North Vietnam, will cease their interference in South Vietnam and Laos.

The Secretary said that there were indications that an important meeting is currently going on in Hanoi. He could also tell Ambassador Alphand in confidence that we had closely watched the situation on the southern border of China and that there had been no Chinese troop movements to the South. Ambassador Alphand suggested that perhaps a political solution with regard to Laos was in the offing. The Secretary said that we wanted to return to the 1962 accords.

The Secretary said that he wanted to be brutally frank. It appeared to him that there were people in Paris—he did not know who they were—who seemed to interpret U.S. actions on the world scene as an attempt to replace and to diminish French influence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ambassador Alphand interjected that he could assure the Secretary that neither he, nor Couve, nor, he thought, General De Gaulle held this view. The Secretary said that, on the contrary, we would be delighted to see an extension of French influence in Southeast Asia, in Africa and in other parts of the world. There have been reports that the French wish to extend their influence in the Congo. Nothing would please us more. Ambassador Alphand said that since the last war the U.S., as the dominant power, had been thrust into a position where it had to exert its influence. He said this had been a good thing and had helped to ensure peace. On the other hand, it had led to a deep involvement of the United States in certain areas, such as Southeast Asia. He referred to our initial support of Diem and alluded to CIA activities in Vietnam.

The Secretary said that seen from Europe, Southeast Asia seemed very far away. We, on the other hand, were an Atlantic as well as a Pacific power and the security of Asia was as important to us as the security of Europe. To us, the defense of South Vietnam has the same significance as the defense of Berlin. Ambassador Alphand disputed this. He felt the situations were not comparable. The stakes in Europe were enormous. The loss of Berlin would shake the foundations of Western security. On the other hand, if we were to lose South Vietnam we would not be losing much.

The Secretary said that if we were to pull out of South Vietnam our guarantees with regard to Berlin would lose their credibility. It was all part of the same struggle, to prevent an extension of Communist influence. Ambassador Alphand said that an agreement on Vietnam with guarantees would not have the effect of lessening Western confidence in U.S. guarantees. The Secretary pointed out that we already have such an agreement on South Vietnam. Ambassador Alphand said that we had not signed the agreement. The Secretary said that we had nevertheless accepted it.

The Secretary said that the reason why we have allies is that we believe in the right of nations to independence. We have 42 allies. Nevertheless, we are not troubled by the concept of non-alignment and neutralism as long as it is genuine.

Ambassador Alphand wondered what could be done in practical terms. He said that with regard to Southeast Asia, we appear to have a difference of opinion and we were going along different paths. The Secretary asked precisely what was the difference of opinion. Ambassador Alphand said France believed there should be a negotiated agreement. The Secretary said that we already have the 1954 and 1962 agreements. Ambassador Alphand suggested that perhaps all that was needed was the 1954 agreement with new guarantees and new controls. The Secretary asked why France did not say so publicly and offer her cooperation to South Vietnam. He said that Saigon did not know what France meant by a “political solution”. Did it mean the inclusion of the Vietcong in the government? Ambassador Alphand admitted that he did not know. He reviewed General De Gaulle's approach to the Algerian problem: De Gaulle had a policy—a negotiated settlement. The details, the means to get there, varied depending on day-to-day developments.

The Secretary said that it was distressing that France used the term “neutralization” without giving it any concrete contents. Used in this manner, the concept becomes negative and creates the impression that France does not really care about the security of the area. The terms “neutralization” and “political solution” without concrete contents are merely words, not a policy. Ambassador Alphand felt that these words nevertheless expressed a policy, a direction. He felt that a choice would have to be made, and although he did not wish to exaggerate the importance of the coming elections, he felt that the choice would be reached more easily once the elections are over. The Secretary assured Ambassador Alphand that the elections played no role in this. The President had made this quite clear. He had heard the President say “I don't have to be re-elected President, but I have to be President while I am President”. Moreover, no U.S. President, before or after the elections, would pull out of Southeast Asia as long as the other side interferes. On the other hand, we would pull out tomorrow if the other side would leave Southeast Asia alone. The Secretary said that his brief trip to Vietnam had convinced him that the country, if it were left in peace, would not only be viable but could be an example to this entire part of the world, thanks to a large extent to what the French had done there in the past. Ambassador Alphand agreed. He observed that the French, while in the area, had always found it necessary to have an agreement with the Chinese.

The Secretary said the question was how to get Chinese assent to a solution. He said Soviet assent in Europe had been accomplished through our defensive arrangements. Only when the Soviets became convinced that they would face a major risk in stirring up trouble in Europe did they assent to actual conditions. Obviously, this lesson must be applied in Asia with regard to the Chinese. Ambassador Alphand agreed that Moscow had come to know the risks involved. He was not sure that this applied to China. He did not think the Chinese realized that local actions in Southeast Asia—infiltrations in South Vietnam and Laos—could eventually create the risk of a destruction of China. The Secretary said that the French should make the Chinese aware of the risks. Ambassador Alphand said he thought that this had already been done; on the other hand, the U.S. had not as yet made a statement to this effect.

The Secretary said that the appearance of a division of the West with regard to Southeast Asia had a definite bearing on the problem and made a solution more difficult. He said the French should tell the North Vietnamese that they must leave South Vietnam alone and that France will oppose them if they continued their interference. Ambassador Alphand asked precisely what the Secretary would wish the French to convey to the Chinese. The Secretary said France should tell the Chinese (1) that if the Chinese and North Vietnamese leave Southeast Asia alone, France will use its influence to see to it that these countries will not present any threat to China; and (2) that if the Chinese do not leave Southeast Asia alone, France will oppose them. The Secretary asked Ambassador Alphand to put these two points to the French Foreign Minister. He said that it seemed to him that a genuinely non-aligned Southeast Asia was also in the interest of France. A non-aligned Southeast Asia would in all likelihood turn toward Paris.

[Here follows discussion of Cambodia.]

1 Source: Department of State, Secretary's Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 65 D 330. Secret. Drafted by Imhof and approved by Rusk. Copies were sent to William and McGeorge Bundy.