337. Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Katzenbach to President Johnson1


  • Negotiations with North Vietnam

This memorandum attempts to answer the question you posed at luncheon.2 It represents my own views and I do not know whether or not the Secretary would agree.

I. The Kissinger Exercise.

The significance of the Paris-Kissinger exercise lies in the fact that it is the closest thing we have yet had to establishing a dialogue with North Vietnam. It takes on particular significance in my view because, since last February, every attempt to get into communication with the North Vietnamese has been brutally and immediately rebuffed. This has been true in Moscow in April3 and in Vientiane in June.4 By and large it has also been true of indirect communication. While Kissinger has not talked yet directly to Bo, he did succeed in establishing a dialogue with him, through intermediaries and written messages, and Bo’s attitude has been consistently to keep the channel open and to encourage dialogue.

To refresh your recollection briefly, the sequence has been as follows:

Our basic message was delivered to Bo on August 25.5
On September 11 Bo delivered a formal reply, repeating the standard Hanoi position and arguments, but pointedly declared he was anxious to keep the channel open.6
On September 13 we formally replied arguing that our proposal did not involve “conditions”.7
On September 23 Bo replied, apparently to our message of September 13, complaining about our intensified bombing which Bo gave as the reason for his refusal to see Kissinger.8
On September 25 Kissinger replied defending our bombing policy partially on grounds of secrecy.9 On September 25 Bo also stated the following:

“Bo replied that the DRV Prime Minister had made it clear that there could be no formal discussions between the US and DRV as long as any level of bombing continued in the North, but, Bo added, preliminary discussions between Bo and Kissinger might not fall under such prohibition. Bo said he would let him know whether such preliminary discussions were possible within a few days.” (underscoring added)10

We should hear towards the end of the week whether or not there can be “preliminary discussions” between Bo and Kissinger. I find it significant that the phraseology “preliminary discussions” was employed by Bo. Preliminary to what? It would seem to me that these discussions could only be preliminary to formal discussion which could take place if our offer was accepted. Kissinger, if he talks to Bo, should pressure the modalities of formal discussions: time, place, date, possibly agenda.

This seems to me the easier because of the statement today from Hanoi that North Vietnam would be prepared to open “serious and significant talks” three or four weeks after the United States halted its bombing without formulating any conditions. (The three to four weeks is clearly negotiable in the light of other information if we can get into preliminary discussions.)

We know that Bo has been in constant communication with Hanoi. His demeanor has indicated that to a large extent he was acting under instructions. We know that we are dealing with a divided government in North Vietnam, and it is at least a reasonable inference that our offer has sufficient appeal for them not to reject it out of hand as they could have done by refusing further communication, and which they have done in the past. This hypothesis seems to be supported by the public statement from Hanoi today which, if nothing else, is certainly the most forthcoming statement they have made on the subject of negotiations.

If you are seriously considering a bombing pause to test Hanoi’s intentions, it seems to me particularly important that the Paris channel [Page 830]not be abruptly ruptured. One thing that we have learned is that once communication is broken off, it takes considerable time to turn it on again. And it seems to me that the most effective pause would be one which followed some kind of dialogue—“preliminary discussions” —of the type contemplated by Bo.

II. Relationship of Pause in Bombing and Discussions.

Virtually every time we have had a contact, direct or indirect, with Hanoi, they or their spokesman have cautioned that an escalation of bombing would prejudice the condition of discussions. This was true with respect to the Polish operation, the Moscow operation, and the current Paris operation. Whether or not there is any merit or substance to the Hanoi statements the simple fact is that there have been actions widely regarded as escalatory which coincide with our efforts to enter into negotiations. It is entirely possible—I think probable—that these actions were seized upon as excuses by Hanoi. But it is not possible to prove that point and there is sufficient plausibility in their position to cast doubt in the minds of other governments and a substantial segment of American public opinion as to the sincerity of our efforts. Since I know that our efforts have been sincere and since I think these are merely excuses, I would like to eliminate all possible doubt with respect to the Kissinger negotiations. If Bo refuses to see Kissinger, then I see no problem with resuming the normal level of bombing in Hanoi. If Bo agrees to see Kissinger, I think it important to continue the circle at least until we see whether the Kissinger channel is leading towards prompt and productive discussions.

I do not believe that Hanoi is presently likely to enter into serious discussions. But I think that it is important in terms of both circumstances and public relations that we test that possibility to the hilt. I do not think we pay a heavy price in delaying hitting again a very small percentage of the targets in North Vietnam. We know that destruction of those targets this week or next week can have absolutely no significance in terms of the conduct of the war. There is an outside chance that it could have some impact on the search for peace. And I would play along with that chance—which I acknowledge to be very small indeed—because the consequences are so great.


Nicholas deB. Katzenbach
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, PENNSYLVANIA (continued). Top Secret; Nodis; Personal.
  2. See Document 336.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 127.
  4. See Document 227.
  5. See Document 293.
  6. See footnote 2, Document 315.
  7. See Document 324.
  8. The text of Bo’s reply is in a note of a telephone conversation between Read and Kissinger, September 24. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/PENNSYLVANIA) It is printed in full in Herring, The Secret Diplomacy of the Vietnam War, pp. 750–752.
  9. The text of Kissinger’s reply is in a note of a telephone conversation between Read and Kissinger, September 25. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/PENNSYLVANIA) It is printed in Herring, The Secret Diplomacy of the Vietnam War, pp. 753–754. According to an untitled and unsigned Department of State memorandum dated September 26, after presenting Kissinger’s proposal, Marcovich added his suggestion that preliminary discussions could begin if the United States reverted to its August level of bombing. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/PENNSYLVANIA)
  10. Printed here as italics.