315. Memorandum From Chester L. Cooper of the National Security Council Staff to President Johnson1


  • A Diplomatic-Political Track for Vietnam

This memorandum was prepared for you at Mr. Moyers’ request. It deals with certain diplomatic and political steps the U.S. might take over [Page 686] the next several weeks largely, but not entirely, in response to recent initiatives from Hanoi. This paper has been seen by Ambassador Unger, but has not otherwise been reviewed by either State or Defense.

The Background

On April 13, DRV Prime Minister Pham Van Dong put forward four points as “the basis for the soundest political settlement of the Vietnam problem”. The points were incorporated in the Soviet-DRV communique of 17 April2 and can thus be assumed to have Moscow’s blessing. Peiping, in its own treatment, made the four points appear to be negotiating preconditions—a position which went beyond Hanoi’s original exposition. [A memorandum to Mr. Bundy exploring these four points from our own point of view is attached as Tab A.]3

On May 19 Ambassador Bohlen reported that, according to the French, just prior to the end of the bombing pause, Mai Van Bo, Hanoi’s representative in Paris, had made a “fairly pressing approach”. In essence, Bo stressed that Pham Van Dong’s four points were not to be considered as preconditions for negotiations, but rather as “working principles” toward an ultimate settlement. State has indicated its interest, but has told Bohlen that we would not like to see the French involved in the exchange and indicated its desire to explore direct channels to Bo or to a DRV representative in some other capital. [Key telegrams are attached as Tab B.]4

In a separate, but possibly related, development, a Monsieur Devilliers, a French journalist and scholar specializing on Vietnam, was in Washington last week. He made two major points in his discussions with me and in a separate talk with Ambassador Unger: Pham Van Dong’s proposals should be regarded as a serious intent to negotiate; the U.S. should proceed to engage in direct discussions with Hanoi, thus avoiding the complications implicit in the participation of other parties.5 While Devilliers’ exposition at this time may have been only coincidental, there is at least an outside chance that he was asked to float these ideas by the [Page 687] French Government and/or Mai Van Bo, with whom he professes to have good contact.

The Next Step

The Department, as indicated, is exploring possibilities for engaging in direct, private talks with representatives of the Hanoi regime if we get reliable indications that they are ready to talk without preconditions.6 Once we have such indications and have settled on a site and forum, we might proceed along the following lines:

“We are treating cautiously the French report to us of a sounding they believe indicates a North Vietnamese desire to discuss conditions for negotiated settlement in South Viet Nam. Amb. Bohlen is telling the French that we are interested in anything which the North Vietnamese may tell them on this subject. We have asked our Ambassadors in Vientiane and Rangoon for views on possible venues for private talks with North Viet Nam, should this lead prove productive, and Amb. Byroade recommends his capital. Amb. Bohlen sees disadvantages in trying to talk in Paris, but thinks the tenuous contact may not survive transfer elsewhere.” (Department of State, President’s Reading File: Lot 74 D 164, President’s Evening Reading Items 1965)

The telegrams summarized in the memorandum are telegram 1013 to Vientiane and Rangoon, May 24; telegram 636 from Rangoon, May 25; telegram 6690 from Paris, May 25; and telegram 1924 from Vientiane, May 26. (All ibid., Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)

Schedule another “pause”.

Inform Hanoi and Moscow privately of our intent. This to be done 48 hours prior to the beginning of our suspension of bombing.

Inform Hanoi (and possibly Moscow) that we are aware of Mai Van Bo’s approach to the French, and are prepared to engage in quiet, bilateral exploratory discussion with representatives of Hanoi without preconditions. We accept that Pham Van Dong’s four points, as modified and interpreted by Bo, would form part of the basis for discussion as would certain points we have put forward. We await Hanoi’s response.

Select a small U.S. delegation which should be prepared to engage in preliminary or even definitive discussions.

If, after 3–4 days of pause (which, in effect, will have given Hanoi 5–6 days to consider our proposal), we get no response, resume our bombing attacks.

Note—it is assumed that the GVN and our key allies will be informed of our initiative. The approval of the GVN (but not necessarily of our other allies) should be obtained.

The question of whether or not bombing should continue during discussions with Hanoi requires further study.

Consequences of Undertaking This Approach

At best, we might be able to isolate Hanoi from Peiping and, with judicious application of carrots, sticks and general bargaining techniques, induce Hanoi to disengage militarily from SVN and cease its [Page 688] support and direction of the VC and (hopefully) bring an end to large-scale offensive action by the VC in the South, in exchange for our suspension of bombing. This could be tied to a second phase of negotiations involving the GVN and the VC, which, especially if the Acheson proposals7 had taken effect, might lead to a satisfactory political resolution within South Vietnam. The final phase of this process could be a relatively simple one: the ratification of the agreements by the Co-Chairmen of the 1954 Accords.

At worst, negotiations might be undertaken and be broken off in bitterness and hostility. This might make subsequent attempts at a diplomatic resolution more difficult, but this is a risk attendant on any attempt to negotiate. Of less grave import, would be Hanoi’s ignoring or turning down our initiative. In this case, we would leak or publicize our approach and the fact that we undertook such a serious and constructive step would buttress the Administration’s image domestically and abroad. Finally, even if negotiations are carried out, there is the possibility that we might find, some time after our bombing has ceased, Hanoi was not keeping its part of the bargain and that our bombing would have to be resumed with all the attendant political problems this would raise.

Further Considerations

If the Acheson plan meets with approval at the highest level, steps should be taken to delay the initiation of direct talks with Hanoi until the plan has been set in motion by Quat. Since the essence of the Acheson scheme is to establish the authority of the GVN throughout South Vietnam and to offer the Viet Cong a political exit from their insurgency, it is important that this be in train prior to any negotiations with Hanoi.

A small group should be established to manage all aspects of our diplomatic-political approach as a full-time highest priority task. This group should be selected with a view that it will provide the nucleus for the US negotiating team. Immediate study should be given to the preparation of a US negotiating track taking into account Hanoi’s four points as recently put forward as well as our own position and objectives.

The visit by the Canadian ICC representative to Hanoi on 31 May offers an opportunity to explore the possibility of direct talks, to inform Hanoi of an impending “pause”, or to seek further clarification of Bo’s initiative.

C L Cooper
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Vol. XXXIV. Top Secret.
  2. See footnote 5, Document 294.
  3. Dated April 24. All brackets are in the source text.
  4. Attached at Tab B were telegram 6582 from Paris, May 19 (Document 308), telegram 6650 from Paris, May 22, and telegram 2660 to Saigon, May 22. In telegram 6650 the Embassy in Paris indicated that the French Foreign Ministry was waiting for an official reaction from Washington to the North Vietnamese démarche, which the French saw as a sign of negotiating flexibility. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S) In telegram 2660, the Department informed the Embassy in Saigon that the response being made to the approach by the North Vietnamese in Paris was that the contact might be of some value in the future, but the United States did not want France to be involved in any exchange that might develop. (Ibid.)
  5. Memorandum of conversation between Cooper and Devilliers, May 21. (Ibid.)
  6. On May 25 Secretary Rusk sent a memorandum to the President containing items for evening reading. One of the items assessed the possibility of private talks with North Vietnam:
  7. See Document 287.