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

Mr. President:

I do believe we face a moment of truth with the arrival of this cable (attached):2

Hanoi has come back to us in Moscow with a three-part response:

  • —What does the U.S. mean by a “completely secure arrangement?”
  • —What is the U.S. position for a settlement?
  • —He wants a prompt reply, indicating “some sense of urgency.”

I take this seriously because, as you know, I have detected some impulse in Hanoi to get out of the war but they didn’t appear to know how. Specifically I felt they needed:

  • —secrecy and speed, to avoid surfacing the negotiation;
  • —direct negotiations with the U.S. to avoid intermediaries and keep secrecy;
  • —an agreed end position—terms of settlement—before they surfaced the fact of negotiation to the NLF and the Chinese.

All these elements are in this response.

Therefore, I believe, we must not only find a secure technique for negotiation but we must now produce a plan for getting them out of the war step by step. We must take them by the hand.

As for secrecy, the two best alternatives are:

  • —Moscow;
  • —Rangoon, for reasons we explained.

With Tommy in Moscow, and the channel started there, we should offer to continue, but indicate a willingness to mount sustained contacts in secret in any other place or by any other means they may suggest. If they are willing to cut the Russians in, the Russians should supply a secure place in the countryside with courier service to Moscow.

But the heart of the matter is to deliver this week an outline of a settlement and a sequence for settlement, which is equally important.

Therefore, our response should be: we propose to negotiate in secret with you these things:

  • —principles governing a settlement;
  • —de-escalation steps on both sides to be taken (on an A–B basis, if you wish) when the principles are agreed and announced;
  • —principles we shall both urge on the South Vietnamese with whom we are connected, for a peaceful settlement within South Viet Nam, after the principles are jointly announced;
  • —agreement for a reinstallation of the Geneva Accords of 1954 and 1962, as the international framework for the region.

I believe there are two reasons they want speed:

  • —to minimize the loss of secrecy;
  • —to make the most of the Tet stand-down.

They may want a swift negotiation of principles; an announcement of principles; and a mutual stand-down in two weeks.

I am reacting strongly because this may be an opportunity we should not miss. When you have an insight and it opens up a little, you must back your play. But I would underline at the end that this could be fun and games. We must, therefore, in presenting our position, stick to our principles and, notably, not sell out the constitutional process in South Viet Nam. If we’ve gotten this far, it’s because of your decisions—including your State of the Union Message—and the quality and courage of our men in the field.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Sunflower, Vol. I. Top Secret; Literally Eyes Only.
  2. Telegram 3066 from Moscow, January 17, was attached. In the telegram Guthrie reported on a conversation with Le Chang in which Chang requested clarification of the January 10 message (see Document 8).