313. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1

Mr. President:

This memorandum suggests that the optimum form of negotiation with Hanoi may be:

  • —a secret negotiation of a total deal;
  • —a dramatic joint announcement followed by a complete end of hostilities, infiltration, and the beginning of troop withdrawals.

1. A Possible Problem

It is certain that the men in Hanoi have not yet decided that their best option is to negotiate. And there is still a probability that they believe that the burden of the war on the U.S. will give them a better resolution in the future than they could get at present, although that conviction may be waning.

But there may be another problem. They may be willing to accept the outcome we have outlined; but they may not be able to see how they can get from here to there without a complete collapse in their negotiating position along the way. Therefore, they may think a different outcome than the one we promise would result. That is why they may, with some candor, call our proposals “trickery”—or worse.

Their problem is this: If they stop infiltration and if they stop terror in the South, two things are likely to happen:

  • —the Viet Cong movement will quickly collapse;
  • —they will then lose their international bargaining position.

This is because the Viet Cong are so dependent on northern supplies, men, and leadership and because the ability to disrupt and to terrorize is the only serious bargaining leverage they have—or believe they have.

Once the Viet Cong movement collapses, it is almost impossible to envisage its starting up again. For example, they may well feel that any substantial de-escalation by Hanoi—in infiltrated men, supplies, etc.—would be immediately recognized by the Viet Cong as the beginning of the end. The Viet Cong might scramble for their place in the society of South Viet Nam. On the other hand, we could sustain various [Page 854] degrees of de-escalation without a collapse in our position or that of South Viet Nam.

With a patent collapse in the Viet Cong they may feel Saigon and we could claim a “new situation” and ignore prior commitments. Communists, as a matter of doctrine, are trained to rely on effective power, not verbal promises or good will.

In this context we should remember that, quite contrary to a popular cliche in the West, guerrilla wars have been won or lost clean: mainland China; Malaya; Philippines; Greece. The only compromise solutions were not political but territorial; e.g., the split of Indo-China at the 17th parallel. (I do not count the Laos solution because it is not a solution—the war continues, awaiting the outcome in Viet Nam.) We are, thus, up against a tough problem in trying to talk our way to a satisfactory resolution of a guerrilla war—with no clear precedents.

2. A Possible Solution

If I have correctly described a part of Hanoiʼs problem in ending the war by negotiation, the answer may lie in communicating to them a solution which takes that problem into account and making it credible.

Specifically, we must communicate three things:

  • an end position which Hanoi and the Viet Cong could live with;
  • a way of making our guarantee of that position credible;
  • a way of getting there which would minimize the significance of Hanoiʼs and Viet Congʼs weak bargaining leverage along the way.

Now each element in turn.

3. An End Position

We can offer the Viet Cong only two things in South Viet Nam and the substance of one of them is dependent on how soon they move towards peace:

  • —a guarantee against slaughter, as in Indonesia.
  • —a right to organize politically and to vote, but only after arms are laid down. They cannot mix terror and political status.

The meaning of the second offer is contingent on when it is picked up; for example, they have already missed the constitutional assembly; if they want to get in on the next round of village and provincial elections, they had better move fast (before early 1967), and this could prove important in establishing a local political base for them; if they want to influence the presidential elections under the new constitution, they have only between now and September 1967.

Since they know that their prospects on a one-man-one-vote basis are not good in South Viet Nam, the Viet Cong may not find a role in domestic politics worth much; it may be more important to Hanoi which [Page 855] could be concerned to save some face for their proteges and protect them from the reprisals that could come if they persist in violence once the game from the North is called off.

As for Hanoi, we can only offer them our withdrawal six months after they are out and violence subsides, plus a free Viet Cong run at peaceful politics plus the promise of an ultimate plebiscite on unity under peaceful conditions plus economic assistance in reconstruction as part of Southeast Asia if they want it.

[It may, incidentally, be important to communicate to them soon that we do not intend to let the war drag; that we plan to up the ante; and our present offers to them may not hold indefinitely.]2

4. The Problem of Credibility

The credibility problem can only be fully solved in conjunction with the bargaining leverage problem discussed in Section 5 below. But two things could contribute:

  • —negotiating in secret the end position while the war goes on;
  • —announcing it publicly (and perhaps registering it before the UN)—the process described in Section 5 begins.

Specifically, the U.S. and the fighting allies would join the government of South Viet Nam in guaranteeing the amnesty to the Viet Cong. If the Viet Cong wanted promptly to participate in peaceful elections—for example at the local level—we (and the government in Saigon) would accept international supervision. If asked what our sanctions would be in the case of violation of the amnesty, we could point out that the South Vietnamese would remain for a long time extremely dependent on our assistance and on the political support of the rest of the world. But no guarantee to the Viet Cong as an organization could be secure unless they cut out violence and did not revive it.

5. The Bargaining Leverage Problem

There is only one answer to the Communist bargaining problem: speed. Once the end position is negotiated in secret and announced, then the war—North and South, main force and guerrilla—must stop dramatically; the North Viet Nam units must immediately begin heading home (from Laos, too); and we must begin immediately some withdrawals. All infiltration and supply movements south must stop on a given day—100%.

The drama of the joint announcement of the agreement by ourselves, Hanoi, Saigon, and the NLF is the best facesaver they could have, with symmetrical movements promptly following.

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Then a Geneva conference could take place on the details of the international aspects of the deal—a beefed up control commission; straightening out Laos, etc.

6. How to Probe the Viability of this Concept

The probe should be a direct U.S.-Hanoi gambit, with no intermediaries.

It should be conducted in great secrecy, and evident seriousness, by a completely credible U.S. official. He should leave behind an aide-memoire for communication to Hanoi.3

W.W. Rostow 4
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President—Walt W. Rostow, vol. 15. Top Secret; Eyes Only. Copies were sent to Rusk and Katzenbach.
  2. Brackets in the source text.
  3. In the agenda prepared for the President for November 19 (during Johnsonʼs stay at Bethesda Naval Hospital), Rostow included an item entitled “Direct Hanoi Probe” and noted: “Sec. Rusk is thinking about my suggestion. I believe we should try it as a supplementary track.” (Ibid.)
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.