20. Editorial Note
During October 1966 retired Mexican diplomat Luis Quintanilla traveled to North Vietnam to meet with DRV President Ho Chi Minh. At that time, Quintanilla proposed that Ho engage in private conversations with two of his American colleagues from the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, William Baggs and Harry S. Ashmore, who had arranged an international conference for world peace in Geneva in May 1967. Subsequently, Baggs and Ashmore received visas from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam Consulate in Phnom Penh and a briefing from U.S. Government officials. Accompanied by Quintanilla, they arrived in Hanoi on January 6, 1967, and remain in North Vietnam for 8 days.
On January 12 they met with Ho Chi Minh. Ho told them that private talks could begin after the United States halted its bombing of North Vietnam. He refused to entertain any reciprocal gestures before the bombing stopped for, in his view, “this would be like a person who [Page 44] has been shot at and held up by a bandit in Chicago, and then was asked by the bandit what price the victim would be willing to pay for the bandit to stop shooting at him.” (Report of Baggs and Ashmore to Bundy, January 18; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Aztec; see also the published account by Baggs and Ashmore, Mission to Hanoi: A Chronicle of Double-Dealing in High Places) Walt Rostow saw little encouraging in Ho Chi Minh’s statements to Baggs and Ashmore. “What comes through clearly, as it has with other recent visitors to Hanoi, is that they are trying to wig-wag to us that they might be willing to settle by negotiation,” he wrote to President Lyndon Johnson in a January 23 memorandum. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Aztec)
Quintanilla insisted upon presenting his own peace plan independent of Baggs and Ashmore. On January 18 he met with Ambassador Fulton Freeman in Mexico City. He related that he had successfully submitted his own proposal for a military truce and a peace agreement to Hoang Tung, an alternate member of the Lao Dong Central Committee. The North Vietnamese had examined Quintanilla’s draft and had proposed changes in it, which Quintanilla then passed on to Freeman. (Telegram 3955 from Mexico City, January 18; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/AZTEC) Bundy responded to Freeman that the draft showed that “Quintanilla may take far too optimistic view of what he has found and may have strong tendencies in direction of publicity and self-glorification.” Quintanilla’s proposal was “a totally one-sided paper that could not possibly form a useful basis for any further discussion.” However, in order “to avoid publicity,” Bundy recommended that a careful response coupled with strictures about secrecy be made to Quintanilla. (Telegram 124925 to Mexico City, January 25; ibid.) The administration would allow Quintanilla to respond to the North Vietnamese with a statement calling for discussions “without any prior conditions or agenda” that Hanoi could initiate through the “Quintanilla channel or any channel of which they already aware.” (Telegram 4141 to Mexico City, January 26; ibid., POL 7 MEX) “The element of a tangible corresponding response to the bombing halt was totally lacking,” Bundy told Under Secretary Katzenbach. (Memorandum from Bundy to Katzenbach, February 3; ibid., POL US-VIET N)
In a meeting with Katzenbach and Bundy on February 4, Ashmore and Baggs presumably requested a response from the administration that they could send to Ho Chi Minh. No record of this meeting can be found, but it is referenced in the negotiating volume of the Pentagon Papers; see George Herring, The Secret Diplomacy of the Vietnam War, page 105. As a consequence, Bundy drafted a letter for Ashmore to sign that reported that he and Baggs had informed the administration; it called for some measure of reciprocal restraint before a bombing halt would occur. (Draft [Page 45] letter from Ashmore to Ho Chi Minh, February 4; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL US-VIET N) On February 15 the letter reached a DRV representative in Cambodia and was forwarded to Hanoi. On February 23 Harriman met with Baggs in Florida and told him that while he “thought their channel was the best available,” he advised no further action. Nevertheless, on February 27 Quintanilla transmitted a request to Hanoi for an “urgent” reply to the February 4 Ashmore letter. He also mentioned that Baggs and Ashmore would return to Hanoi on March 10 in order to discuss the proposal. (Memorandum to the Director of Central Intelligence from the Deputy Director for Plans and attached Intelligence Report CSDB–312/00592–67, March 2; Central Intelligence Agency, DDI Files, Job 80–B01721R, Vietnam (General) 1967) On March 3 Quintanilla received a reply from the DRV rebuffing the proposed trip due to new military actions by the United States in Vietnam. (Memorandum to the Director of Central Intelligence from the Deputy Director for Plans and attached Intelligence Report CSDB–312/00649–67, March 9; ibid.) Baggs and Ashmore later argued that their effort had been “undercut” by the administration due to an exchange the President had initiated simultaneously with Ho Chi Minh. See Baggs and Ashmore, Mission to Hanoi, pages 88–99.
At the end of May the conference Pacem in Terris II convened in Geneva. The Johnson administration, the Soviet Union, and the DRV did not send representatives to the conference. Given an agreement among the international participants that no Vietnamese side would be heard without both being present, the government in Saigon was not invited to attend.
During early June Baggs and Ashmore presented to both sides a call for a secret discussion to decide the agenda for negotiations. These talks would not occur prior to the termination of aerial bombardment, an idea that was strongly supported by the conference attendee nations. (Ibid., pages 100–105) According to a June 14 report given to Katzenbach by Baggs and Ashmore, on June 8 Ashmore received a message from the DRV General Delegation in Paris granting permission for him to see its head, Mai Van Bo. Both Baggs and Ashmore met with Bo for an hour and a half on June 12. They told Bo that the U.S. Government knew of the meeting and “would expect to be informed.” Bo did not depart from the official position of his government in opposition to reciprocal action in exchange for a bombing halt. Baggs offered that despite its reliance on military measures, the U.S. Government was in reality looking for a means by which to settle the war through negotiations. Ashmore suggested that instead of official settlement discussions, which could not be held until the bombing ended completely, according to the DRV position, perhaps “an exploratory conversation” could occur between designated representatives of the two sides. Bo expressed interest. Bo stated categorically that his government “would talk” if the U.S. bombardment [Page 46] ceased unconditionally. Bundy passed the memorandum of the conversation to S/S, with instructions to distribute it to Rusk, Katzenbach, Harriman, Rostow, McNaughton, and Helms on an Eyes Only basis. He expressed concern that the DRV leadership would misinterpret the remarks of the two Americans as implying that the “only condition” was an agreed agenda for settlement talks, with no insistence upon reciprocity. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Bundy Files: Lot 85 D 240, Top Secret WPB Chron., Jun/Aug. 1967) This channel remained moribund for the rest of the year.
On September 18 the State Department issued a description of the contacts in response to an article written by Ashmore on the episode. For text of the statement, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1967, pages 990–992.