97. Note From the Executive Secretary of the National Security Council (Smith) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

The hardest information we have gotten from Hanoi in some time is contained in the attached cable reporting the views of Chester Ronning, a retired Canadian Foreign Service Officer, with life-long personal connections with China.2

His report to Prime Minister Pearson will be helpful in destroying illusions still held by some in Ottawa.

Bromley Smith

[Page 288]


Consul Armstrong Reports from Hong Kong:

Results of Mission:

Ronning characterized results of his mission by quoting old Chinese saying: He had “travelled ten thousand miles to present a feather.” He said he is more pessimistic about long-range Vietnamese problem than before his trip.

North Vietnamese Confidence:

North Vietnamese leaders he spoke to from Pham Van Dong on down convinced they were winning war, although they concede it will be long struggle. In response my query how North Vietnamese expected achieve victory (e.g. by military victory, US loss of determination, South Vietnamese collapse), Ronning said North Vietnamese view not clear. North Vietnamese leaders told him they fully expected stepped-up US military effort, both in South and in bombing of North, including bombing of Hanoi, industries, etc. Explained they had few large industries; small industries being dispersed and plans made for evacuating government offices and populace. Ronning commented to me that he did not disabuse North Vietnamese leaders of their estimates of increased US military action. Instead, he tried to impress upon them that US could bring vastly greater military power to bear than could the French in 1950ʼs, and that therefore no chance of history repeating itself (as they seemed to believe).


North Vietnamese leaders were totally unwilling budge from “Four Points.” His remonstrances that strict adherence “Four Points” would amount to total American surrender and were therefore unworkable as negotiations formula were greeted with attitude “thatʼs the Americanʼs problem.”4

Soviet Ambassador, while expressing full support North, implied there was somewhat greater possibility for negotiations by telling him [Page 289] that first prerequisite permanent cessation of bombing of North Vietnam. When Ronning asked why, if this was the case, North Vietnam had made no response during recent bombing pause, Soviet Ambassador said “they did respond” but refused specify channel or content. Soviet Ambassador said resumption of bombing came at just the wrong time and gave Ronning impression resumption had “loused up” overtures Soviets were making to Hanoi at the time.

Sino-Soviet Dispute:

North Vietnamese leaders attempted downplay importance of dispute and particularly its impact on Vietnam situation.

Geneva Accords:

Ronning said both South Vietnam and North Vietnam leaders talked of return to Geneva Accords but in completely different terms. South Vietnamese leaders stressed provision for withdrawal of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, and claimed that reunification would eventually come through “disintegration” of Communist control in North. North Vietnamese leaders stressed elections and claimed they were confident election results would pave way to early reunification.

Ronningʼs Treatment:

Ronning found that as a Canadian he was treated better than British who support American position fully, but was made politely aware that Canada little more than American satellite. However, Pham Van Dong appreciative of Pearsonʼs public statement of regret over resumption of bombing in North.

Ronning found his several hours of talks with Hanoi leaders very wearing and frustrating with conversations wandering down blind alleys and always returning to same intransigent dead end. He got impression he was object of team effort at wearing him down, as long, hard hours of conversation with one group of officials would soon be followed, with little rest, by another session with fresh team. Some talks also scheduled in early morning with scarcely fifteen minutes notice, apparently to keep him off balance.

Impressions of Hanoi:

People adequately clothed and fed. Ronning made special point of visiting market and found rice, fish, meat and vegetables in seemingly good supply. Only stall with line of people in front was selling flour. (He could not tell whether it was Canadian or not, but noticed word “flour” in English on bag.) Streets were practically empty at night, and Ronning was told that many oldsters, youth, and cadre dependents had been evacuated.

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Ho Chi Minh Out of Sight:

Ho, an old acquaintance of Ronningʼs, sent apologies explaining that round of meetings in connection with forthcoming Soviet Congress left no time to see him. It was rumored in Hanoi that Ho planning attend Congress.

Chinese Not in Evidence:

With exception of banquet room full of Chinese cultural troupers in Sun Yat Sen suits, Ronning saw no Chinese in Hanoi. ChiCom Embassy personnel invited to reception given by North Vietnamese his honour did not show up.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, vol. XLVIII. No classification marking.
  2. Ronning visited Hanoi March 7–11. A memorandum of his March 20 conversation with William Bundy on the visit, together with his undated memorandum summarizing his principal meetings in Hanoi, are in Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S/PINTA.
  3. Secret; Exdis. The attachment bears no date or drafting information.
  4. Following his conversation with Ronning on March 20, William Bundy prepared a note for the Presidentʼs Evening Reading that reads: “Ronning reports that his conversations in early March were friendly in tone but completely obdurate in substance. The only possible glimmer of light was a vague suggestion by Pham Van Dong that Hanoi might be ready to talk if we would undertake to stop all attacks on North Vietnam ‘unconditionally and for good.’ This demand has usually been linked with acceptance of the Four Points, and we suspect it still would be if the right questions were asked.” (Department of State, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, WPB Chron)