112. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

Herewith Secretary Rusk’s redraft of a message to U Thant after your telephone conversation with him. I have gone over it with General Taylor.

Our preferred position would be that we not now make a substantive reply to the Secretary General because we have not in fact thought through the problems of a general cessation of hostilities and because some of the language in this message could rise up to haunt us; for example, “standstill truce.”

On the other hand, Secretary Rusk’s argument for a prompt response is quite strong; and Saigon will, apparently, be filing its response in any case.2

At the minimum, General Taylor and I have indicated in pencil the changes we would make in this draft.

Our minimum changes reflect two substantive problems:

1.
“Any place” could mean Hanoi or some other point of embarrassment. We ran into this problem in the Korean truce talks.
2.
“Standstill truce” has overtones of freezing the sovereignty and limiting the police powers of Saigon which “cessation of hostilities” avoids. We are clear that any serious negotiation of a cessation of hostilities might involve, as part of a process, the reservation of certain areas for VC forces which would not be attacked; but that is a quite different thing from giving them the chance to define territorial control, which might be the basis for later political claims via a “standstill truce.” In fact, the heart of a truce or cessation of hostilities negotiation is a political negotiation about the place of the VC in South Vietnamese society under the constitution. We should leave flexibility for [Page 261]that process and, in our judgment, not get frozen into the possibly dangerous “standstill” language of the Secretary General.

To give you an idea of the issues that are in fact involved, if we move towards a cessation of hostilities, I attach a memorandum done by General Taylor after conversations yesterday.3 Whether or not we go forward with an answer to the Secretary General, I hope we shall budget some time during the Guam trip for talk about this matter.

Walt

Attachment

U.S. Aide-Mémoire to Secretary-General of the United Nations Thant4

As the Secretary General knows, the United States and other Governments have, over many months, approached Hanoi, both publicly and privately, with proposals to end the conflict in Vietnam. To date, all such efforts have been rebuffed. The Government of North Vietnam has refused to agree to discussions without pre-conditions or to take reciprocal actions leading toward a cessation of hostilities.

For this reason, the Government of the United States would be most interested in learning whether Hanoi is willing to enter into such discussions or to take reciprocal actions leading to peace in Vietnam. The United States has been, and remains willing to enter into discussions without pre-conditions with Hanoi at any time.5

To this end, the United States accepts the three-step proposal in the aide-mémoire of the Secretary General of March 1967 envisaging: (a) A general stand-still truce; (b) preliminary talks; (c) reconvening of the Geneva Conference.

The United States believes it would be desirable and contributory to serious negotiations if an effective cessation of hostilities6 as the [Page 262]first element in the three-point proposal, could be promptly negotiated.7

It would, therefore, be essential that the details of such a general cessation of hostilities8 be discussed directly by both sides, or through the Secretary-General, the Geneva Conference Co-Chairmen or otherwise as may be agreed. The United States is prepared to enter into such discussions immediately and constructively.

The United States is also prepared to take the next steps in any of the forms suggested by the Secretary General to enter into preliminary talks leading to agreement as to the modalities for reconvening of the Geneva Conference.

Of course, the Government of South Vietnam will have to be appropriately involved throughout this entire process. The interests and views of our allies would also have to be taken fully into account.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Intelligence File, U Thant Proposal 3/14/67. Secret.
  2. The GVN issued its own reply to Thant’s aide-mémoire. It called for a meeting between A RVN and Viet Cong leaders in order to arrange the mechanics of the cease-fire and for the opening of “a Geneva-type international conference” rather than simply allowing for the beginning of preliminary talks. (Telegram 20715 from Saigon, March 18; ibid.) Lodge was strongly opposed to the “so-called stand-still.” (Telegram 20591 from Saigon, March 16; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)
  3. Not printed. In his March 18 memorandum to the President, Taylor proposed as a possible response to U Thant’s initiative a simultaneous discussion of military and political issues in the DMZ under ICC auspices; he recommended that the proposal be considered at the upcoming conference in Guam.
  4. The revised aide-mémoire was sent to Thant that day. Goldberg strongly recommended immediately making the reply public. He feared that the Indians, the Canadians, the Poles, the Japanese, or the United Nations itself would pre-emptively release the record of the exchanges anyway. A prompt and public reply would buttress relations with Thant and allow an affirmation to be issued at Guam. (Telegram 4445 from USUN, March 17; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 7 GUAM)
  5. The words “or any place” were deleted from the end of this sentence by Rostow.
  6. Rostow wrote “cessation of hostilities” to replace “standstill truce.”
  7. The word “established” before “promptly” has been marked out by Rostow, and he added “negotiated” at the end of this sentence.
  8. Rostow again substituted “cessation of hostilities” for “standstill truce.”