29. Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Ball to President Johnson 1


  • Possible Signal from Hanoi

Many of us have believe that at the last moment before the Communists think we may resume bombing, Hanoi will try to muddy the water by an ambiguous response. It is possible that this is now occurring through Vientiane.

Souvanna Phouma has told Ambassador Sullivan that the North Vietnamese Charge approached him on Monday2 to deliver a demarche under instructions from Hanoi.3 This demarche consisted of four general headings, two of which related directly to our fourteen points:

The DRV cannot accept the accusation that their troops are guilty of aggression, since there are no DRV troops in SVN (Point 13).
Peace can only be restored if the people are permitted to exercise free choice concerning their political and social future. There can be no free choice while US troops remain in the South (Point 8).
The US will never leave the South because of its agreement with Saigon and the extension of SEATO protection to the South.
The DRV denies any violation of Laos territory by the sending of 4,500 troops per month over the Ho Chi Minh trail. Again, there are no DRV troops in SVN.

Souvanna asked the Charge why he did not make these points directly to the Americans. The Charge replied that Souvanna was particularly familiar with Indochinese affairs. Souvanna then asked whether the North Vietnamese wished him to act as intermediary between Hanoi and the Americans. The Charge replied that he would seek further instructions on this point.

Souvanna raised the question as to Sullivanʼs authority to participate in a meeting directly between Sullivan and the Charge. Sullivan has asked for instructions and we have authorized him to talk with the Charge if Souvanna arranges it. Our telegram to Sullivan is attached at Tab A.4

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Why This May Be Hanoiʼs Response to Our Peace Offensive

There are several reasons it is logical for Hanoi to approach us through Souvanna:

It would be consistent with past conduct to use an Asian. In 1950 Peiping communicated to us regarding Korea through an Asian, the Indian Ambassador Panikkar, rather than through Eastern European Communist allies or neutrals.
A communication through Vientiane is less likely to be listened in on by the Soviets or Chinese than a communication through Moscow or one of the Eastern European capitals.
Communications with Hanoi from Vientiane are quicker and more secure than from Rangoon since the ICC plane goes back and forth three times a fortnight.
The North Vietnamese know Bill Sullivan since he was at the Geneva Conference of 1962. They also know that Averell Harriman (also associated with the 1962 Conference) was recently in Vientiane.
Since our pause began Sullivan has reported that the North Vietnamese Charge has twice made friendly social noises to him.

The Content of the Message

The Chargeʼs message is significant in that it is addressed to our Fourteen Points. (Peiping has publicly denounced this formulation with the phrase “to hell with the Fourteen Points.”)

The most interesting point in the message is that there can be no free choice (meaning quite possibly free elections) until American troops are withdrawn. We have never taken a position on the timing of troop withdrawal but have insisted only that conditions must first be created and guarantees provided under which elections can be held free of all outside interference.

The question of our withdrawal prior to elections has been very much on Hanoiʼs mind as the following facts disclose:


The Polish ICC representative, who was in Hanoi on January 10 to 11, is reported by an authoritative Western source to have said that Shelepin had tried to persuade the Hanoi Government that unification should come about in two stages.

Under the Soviet plan the first stage would be an election in South Viet-Nam in which all representative parties including the Liberation Front would participate in the creation of a new government.

The second stage would be an election in which both North and South Viet-Nam would determine the issue of reunification.

The Hanoi leaders reportedly told Shelepin that they disagreed with this two-stage approach but put special emphasis on the United States desire to take part in the supervision of elections.

The fact that the Polish ICC representative was in Hanoi and purported to know about the Shelepin proposal suggests that the Poles may have participated in planning—or at least were familiar with—the approach that the DRV has now made to Souvanna. This may explain the implication in Rapackiʼs conversation on January 18 with Ambassador Gronouski that something was moving on which he could not comment.5
On January 16, the DRV official newspaper, Nhan Dan, discussed the issue of troop withdrawal in a manner similar to that employed by the Charge to Souvanna:

“Everyone knows that there can be peace and free elections in South Viet-Nam only when American troops have withdrawn from there… . US troops would never get out of South Viet-Nam or they would withdraw only on condition that the elections in South Viet-Nam are held under the US aggressorsʼ control and will lead to the domination of South Viet-Nam by their lackeys.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Ambassador Kohler has asked for an appointment with the North Vietnamese Charge in Moscow.6 He has been advised of Souvannaʼs conversation in Vientiane but we are instructing him not to mention it unless the other side raises the question. If in fact Hanoi has selected Vientiane as the channel of their choice we do not wish to confuse the situation.

Certainly what has been said through Souvanna so far offers no basis for a solid dialogue. It is possible, however, that it may be the prelude either to the opening of conversations through Souvanna or a direct exchange between Sullivan and the North Vietnamese Charge. We are giving Sullivan full instructions in the event such an exchange becomes possible.

As you will see from Tab A Sullivan will suggest that Souvanna go back to the DRV Charge promptly in the hope that we can get clearer evidence within the next two or three days whether the North Vietnamese Government is serious or just trying to confuse the situation.

George W. Ball
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President—McGeorge Bundy, vol. 19. Secret. McGeorge Bundy forwarded the memorandum to President Johnson at 7 p.m. on January 19, noting in his covering memorandum that he agreed that it was right to follow up quickly Hanoiʼs approach to Souvanna but that he thought that Ball “somewhat overstates its significance.” (Ibid.)
  2. January 17.
  3. Sullivan reported on the approach to Souvanna in telegrams 773 and 774 from Vientiane, January 19. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)
  4. Attached but not printed. The message was transmitted in telegram 478 to Vientiane, January 19. (Ibid.)
  5. Gronouski reported on this conversation in telegram 1172 from Warsaw, January 18. (Ibid.)
  6. See Documents 25 and 37 regarding Kohlerʼs contacts with the DRV in Moscow.