330. Memorandum of Conversation Between the Ambassador at Large (Harriman) and Secretary of Defense McNamara1

In accordance with the understanding I had with Bob McNamara in July that we should compare notes on the possibility of encouraging [Page 810]the Saigon Government to get in touch with the NLF after the election, I called on him today.

He agreed that we must do everything possible to get negotiations going before our election in 68. He said that Vietnam would “tear the country apart” in the election campaign. He spoke of his being picketed when he made his speech in San Francisco and the manner in which he avoided them by having a dummy car with police in the front, whereas he ducked out the back door. Finding that they had been duped, the pickets threw bottles and rocks at the car and the police.

He strongly supports carrying through on the Kissinger-A,M lead. He said he thought Kissinger had handled it superbly. He confirmed that he would oppose any bombing in the environs of Hanoi as long as these discussions were going on with Bo. He commented that this was the first time that we had gotten a real reply. I mentioned the possibility of the Norwegian Ambassador’s visit.2 His only comment was that it would be difficult to have two leads going at the same time. Believing we could cross that bridge if we had to, I simply said that I thought the Norwegian could be properly briefed as he was an experienced diplomat.

He agreed that we should talk again after the new Saigon Government was organized with the new Prime Minister and the other civilian Ministers.

We agreed that Bunker should be urged to encourage any possible contacts between the new government and individual NLF members or the group as a whole. When I said that the Saigon Government should also be encouraged to give consideration to a possible settlement which they themselves could work out, he replied, “There is only one answer: representatives of the VC must be admitted to the coalition government and the VC recognized as a legitimate party.” He agreed when I said they must abandon all terrorism, and he added, “Perhaps under a new name.”

He said that he knew Dean Rusk expected a VC surrender but thought that was impossible. I told him that I agreed that Rusk was unrealistic and would have to be persuaded.

For my part, I felt we should try to do somewhat better than the acceptance of the VC as a political party because of the danger of its [Page 811]terrorist activity and its ruthless organization. I showed him the news report from Moscow quoting Brezhnev as supporting “the struggle for building up an independent, democratic, peaceful and neutral South Vietnam.” I also pointed out that the Hanoi Ambassador in Peking had told the Norwegian Ambassador that South Vietnam could have a non-communist government.3 This sort of thing led me to hope that if negotiations really started between the Saigon Government and the NLF, a better deal could be worked out than the one he suggested. But I firmly believed that the Secretary was 100% wrong in thinking the NLF would surrender if the North Vietnamese quit.

I asked him about the mood of the President. He said he wasn’t quite sure. He was surrounded by Rostow, Clark Clifford and others who seemed to think that victory was around the corner, to which he did not agree. He thought perhaps the President wanted to give the hawks, such as Senators Russell and Dirksen, as much of what they were asking as he could, and then he would be in a better position to follow a peace course if it hadn’t worked.

I said I thought we ought to aim for the Tet period, concentrating all of our actions to achieve the commencement of negotiations. When I said that the bombing must be in tune, he interrupted by saying, “Our record is appalling.” I commented that I did not believe any fruitful negotiations could have been started before now, but I agreed that every time we had started negotiations the bombing interrupted them, and we never knew where they would have led. In any event, our bombing had given the other side an excuse for dropping out.

In reply to my question, he said he was firmly opposed to mining the Haiphong harbor, and that was why he had made his statement so firm. He felt all hands agreed to that at the present time. I told him that I had not involved myself in the bombing policy and was holding my powder dry unless that subject came up, in which case I would have to oppose strongly. He said, “That is my position.”

We agreed that the Soviet Union would have to play an important role in any settlement, and the Soviet Union would have to underwrite economic reconstruction of North Vietnam. Without this, Hanoi could never act, as China would probably continue to oppose. He suggested that we might propose to the Russians that we pay a share. I told him that I understood Dean Rusk was going to raise the subject of Vietnam with Gromyko to see whether we could make any progress towards getting the Soviets to take more vigorous action. He agreed when I said [Page 812]that I thought we ought to show the Soviets our recent A & M proposal.4

We agreed to have another talk after the government was formed and review the situation in the light of developments.

W. Averell Harriman5
  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Special Files, Public Service, Subject Files, McNamara, Robert S. Top Secret; Nodis; For Personal Files Only.
  2. Algard had not yet responded to Loan’s August 19 invitation to visit Hanoi as an intermediary. According to telegram 36328 to Oslo, September 13, the Department withheld instructions to the Norwegians while the Pennsylvania contact continued in order to avoid “duplication of channels.” The North Vietnamese also delayed the resumption of this channel presumably for the same reason by not issuing a travel permit to Algard. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/OHIO)
  3. According to telegram 972 from Oslo, August 21, Loan made this remark at the August 19 meeting. (Ibid.)
  4. Harriman made this recommendation in a memorandum sent to Rusk the next day. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Special Files, Public Service, Subject Files, Vietnam, General, July–December 1967)
  5. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.