165. Letter From the Ambassador to the Soviet Union (Thompson) to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Rostow)1

Dear Gene:

I was glad to have your thoughtful letter of May 1.2 I have of course been giving a great deal of thought to the problems you raise and would like to give you my frank views.

In the first place, I think you give somewhat too much weight to the Korean precedent. I was not involved in that affair, but there are obvious differences between that situation and the Vietnam affair; e.g., I might mention the change in the relationship between the Soviet Union and Communist China. I think also the fact that in the case of Korea, the Soviets in the position of bucking the UN made considerable difference.

I think it is true that the fact that so many of our peace moves coincided with an escalation of our attacks against North Vietnam has caused the Soviets to wonder if our peace initiatives are not a cover for actions designed to achieve a military victory. I also believe they think that one of the motives of our moves toward détente is to exacerbate their quarrel with Communist China.

You suggest both a warning and an offer. To take the offer first, God knows we have made it clear to the Soviets that we are prepared to negotiate, and the only new factor which you suggest is an expression of our willingness to jointly guarantee a settlement. In the first place, I think the present situation is such that the Soviets would not believe us and, in the second place, I can see great difficulties both for the Soviets and ourselves. For them this means openly joining with us in a move largely directed against Communist China. While they would have no regard for how the Chinese might receive this, it would cause problems for them with the rest of the Communist world. Moreover, the Soviet objective is surely a Communist North and South Vietnam not dominated by China and, to the extent that the settlement left South Vietnam free, the guarantee would work against Soviet interests. So far as we are concerned, if we ever succeed in disengaging ourselves militarily, I would hate to see us committed to come back if the settlement [Page 394] were violated. For both of us there would be the problem of establishing when a violation had occurred. If it did occur, it would undoubtedly be by North Vietnamese support for Viet Cong elements in the South, and this would be very hard to establish.

This brings me to the subject of the settlement itself. Perhaps there have been some decisions in Washington of which I am not aware, but if the North Vietnamese did agree to negotiations, I cringe to think of what our position would be on the role of the NLF. Unless they were brought into the Government in some way, I think we would be even worse off in world opinion than we are now, and Ky’s position seems to me tenable only in the event that we have achieved a military victory. It seems to me that you are suggesting that we agree to guarantee a settlement, the nature of which we do not know, and in short my view is that any settlement we could achieve now would be one which I would hate to see us have to guarantee. Despite the foregoing objections, I can see that at some stage we might sound the Soviets out on this, but I think surely it would have to be a guarantee in which others, and probably the UN, were involved.

I feel much more strongly about the warning. In the first place, the Soviets are well aware of the risks involved in the continuation of the present situation. You suggest it would not be difficult to work out a formula for a warning, but I can myself think of none that would be effective which would not be taken by them as a threat, and if there is one thing I have learned about this place it is that they react badly to threats. They should never be made unless we mean them and, because of their great inferiority complex, threats tend to make them dig in all the deeper.

It is clear that Dobrynin was brought back here in connection with a top level review of Soviet-American relations and particularly the Vietnam affair. I do not know what the outcome will be, but I suspect that as a minimum they will increase the quality and quantity of their military aid.

It seems to me that the most dangerous period will be when we really begin to win. At this time, the North Vietnamese will have to decide whether to negotiate or to cash the blank check which the Communist countries gave them in the Bucharest Declaration, that is to call for volunteers. They would be most reluctant to do this, because it would mean undoubtedly bringing in Chinese volunteers as well and they would have the problem of getting the Chinese out, but if the Chinese were balanced by Soviets and East European Communist forces, the North Vietnamese might hope to succeed in this. My present guess is that they would negotiate, but I worry that the odds are not very great, and I am afraid that our increased bombing is turning them against us.

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The Danish Ambassador tells me that in saying goodbye to Chen Yi when leaving China about six months ago where he had been stationed, Chen Yi told him there were only three cases in which China would intervene in Vietnam: one was an attack on China, the second was the imminence of the downfall of a Communist regime in North Vietnam, and the third was an invasion of North Vietnam.

You have doubtless seen the INR study which gives greater credence than formerly to the view that the Soviets may prefer the continuance of the Vietnamese war to a settlement.3 I still think the Soviets would like to see it settled, but I agree that this has recently become less clear than formerly. They appear to be tempted by the possibility of getting us out of Europe and breaking up NATO, and may well believe that our involvement in Vietnam contributes to this objective. Moreover, they are certainly aware of the damage to our image around the world. While they do not want a confrontation with us, they can always use the excuse that the Chinese made it impossible for the Communist countries, including the Soviet Union, to render effective aid.

My own view is that neither the Soviets nor the North Vietnamese hold the key to this situation. The Soviets do not want to take the blame for any settlement that would be acceptable to us, as this would greatly enhance the standing of the Chinese Communists in the whole area at their expense. Similarly, the North Vietnamese will not want to pull the rug out from under the Viet Cong. They have made enormous sacrifices in this affair, and if they move before the Viet Cong are willing to settle, they will have jeopardized their own position in South Vietnam. It seems to me therefore that the NLF and the Viet Cong constitute the key factor and I am afraid that the only satisfactory solution is for us to continue and step up our efforts in the South, although this involves heavy sacrifices on our part. I certainly do not think that the Soviets would be willing to cut off supplies in order to bring pressure on North Vietnam for fear that this would mean handing over North Vietnam to the Chinese. As long as our main effort is confined to the South, I think there is little risk of Soviet intervention and I only wish that we could have levelled off our bombing in the North sometime ago, and even better to have confined it to the southern part of North Vietnam, although I realize the pressures on the President from the military and others. I wish I could be more optimistic, but this is the way it looks to me.


  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Official-Informal.
  2. In his letter to Thompson, Eugene Rostow urged that bombing be restricted to infiltration routes in order to avoid the risk of forcing a confrontation with the Soviet Union. He recalled the efforts of both Soviet and U.S. diplomats to end the hostilities in Korea and suggested that a like collaboration could occur with respect to Vietnam. (Ibid.)
  3. Not further identified.