135. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • South Vietnam


  • U.S.
    • The Secretary
    • The Under Secretary
    • William Bundy, Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs
    • Frazier Meade, EUR/BNA
  • UK
    • The Lord Harlech, British Ambassador
    • Michael Stewart, British Minister
    • Oliver G. Forster, First Secretary, British Embassy

The British Ambassador said that he wished, on instructions from his Foreign Secretary, to discuss Vietnam. The Foreign Secretary’s instruction stemmed from a conversation the British Ambassador in Moscow had with Lapin on February 16. In response to Lapin’s reference to North Vietnam’s message to the co-chairman for Vietnam,2 the British Ambassador had reviewed what he understood was the Soviet position, to wit that the Soviets had no desire to reactivate their role as co-chairman and that they had no authority to do so under the 1954 agreement. Lapin said that he agreed that the 1954 agreement did not give specific authority for the co-chairmanship role but said that when there is a fire the firemen should not argue about their authority to act. It was important to use all means to help the victims of U.S. aggression in Vietnam. The British Ambassador in Moscow surmised that the changed Soviet [Page 314] attitude resulted from North Vietnam’s pressure on Kosygin. The Ambassador requested instructions from the Foreign Office on 1) reviving the co-chairmanship role in Vietnam, 2) rebutting Soviet arguments about the North Vietnamese as victims of aggression, and 3) positive action that the co-chairman might take to accomplish a peaceful settlement.

Lord Harlech said that the Foreign Secretary believed that we should try to provide ammunition to the Ambassador in Moscow, and had asked him to consult with the U.S. on what answer should be provided. Lord Harlech then read from the Foreign Secretary’s suggestion as to how to reply to point one, stating in essence that the British thought it would be desirable to revive the tradition of informal voluntary Anglo-Soviet cooperation on Vietnam’s problems. Lord Harlech handed Secretary Rusk a copy of the Foreign Secretary’s position.3

The Secretary agreed that it was important to consider how we should respond to the Soviet initiative. On a tentative basis, he and Mr. Bundy concurred that it would be useful for the UK to continue its co-chairman role with the Soviets in Vietnam. The Secretary said that they would review this proposal in detail and inform Lord Harlech.

Lord Harlech then said that the Foreign Secretary felt it was difficult to make any response to the Soviets without more evidence of U.S. intent. He thought it would be advantageous if the U.S. would define publicly its objectives and the conditions which would enable it to negotiate the Vietnam problem. Lord Harlech said he personally thought it would also be useful to make clear in any statement that the U.S. had no designs on North Vietnam. Without a clear public statement of U.S. intent, it would become even more difficult for HMG to continue in Parliament to support the U.S. or even to justify continuing the co-chairmanship role. The Foreign Secretary felt that the need for a clarification of U.S. policy existed prior to Lapin’s remark. Lapin’s remarks added urgency to this.

The Secretary inquired whether HMG did not think it desirable to tie down the details of the Hanoi attack. Lord Harlech said HMG agreed there was a need for such an explanation but that it should be supplemented by an outline of U.S. policy. The Secretary then said that apart from the necessity of gaining a common acceptance of the elementary facts of the situation, we should be certain the Soviets are under no misunderstanding of the facts as we see them. They need not, of course, be required to agree with our interpretation. In addition, it would be useful to determine whether the Soviets were ascribing difficulties purely to [Page 315] South Vietnam or whether they agreed that it was a problem of the North Vietnamese as well.

The Secretary then explained the difficulties of making a public statement on our policy towards Vietnam. If we were too precise about the problem, we could reduce our maneuverability. For the Ambassador’s private information, however, the Secretary stated he was thinking of making a press statement this week.

Lord Harlech stressed the Foreign Secretary’s feeling that we had moved into a new phase on the Vietnam problem and that it was consequently essential to have a new statement of U.S. policy. The UK would have an increasingly difficult time holding the line unless it could point to a U.S. position which the British could support. Without such a guide, more and more suggestions would be made as to how other people or organizations could solve the problem. The problem would become particularly difficult for the UK if it continues in its co-chairman role.

The Secretary noted that we would not consider negotiations unless we felt there was some possibility of a meaningful conclusion to them. It was conceivable that if we made a formal proposal to negotiate on such and such conditions that it would be rejected at the outset by the other side. On the other hand, if we met without any reasonable prospects of success and failed, where could we go from there? The Secretary said he would inform Lord Harlech shortly of our reactions to the British Foreign Secretary’s proposals.4

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27–14 VIET S. Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Meade. The meeting took place in Rusk’s office and lasted until 3:15 p.m. (Johnson Library, Rusk Appointment Book)
  2. See American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1965, p. 833.
  3. Not attached to the source text, but the document given Rusk by Harlech apparently was Foreign Secretary Stewart’s cable of February 17 to the British Embassy in Washington, in which Stewart explained the British position. A copy is in Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 294, UK/Rusk Correspondence 1964–65.
  4. In telegram 1744 to Saigon, February 17, drafted by Rusk, the Secretary of State informed Taylor of his conversation with the British Ambassador and remarked that “assumption of 1954 co-chairmanship by two governments would imply that they might themselves explore with interested governments possibilities of solution, which we would encourage or otherwise as we see fit.” (Ibid., Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)