394. Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1


  • Analysis of Tran Bach Dang’s Message2
Is the message genuine? Our reading of the evidence leads us to conclude that the message is what it purports to be—a communication from the Communist leadership of the National Liberation Front sent with Hanoi’s approval. The case history of this episode, from Dang’s dispatch of Sau Ha in July through Sau Ha’s arrest with the initial letter to the Ambassador and the subsequent developments involving Tong (the intermediary), is plausible and holds together very well. Details obtained from debriefings of Tong following his abortive trip in September and his more recent successful mission, as well as our reading of his character, also bear up under intense scrutiny and cross-checking. The substance of the message is not inconsistent with previous reflections of the attitude of both Hanoi and the National Liberation Front (NLF) toward the war and the problem of negotiations. Finally, an initiative of this sort can be construed as a logical extension of the stated policies of both the Front and Hanoi as they have evolved over the years, and particularly over recent months.
What does the message say? Because the message is cast in the somewhat imprecise, dogmatic, and often contradictory language common to Communist correspondence, its substance is not clear. Our best interpretation, however, can be summarized as follows:
The NLF is prepared to discuss an exchange of prisoners if the Americans first demonstrate good faith by releasing Sau Ha and others associated with his case, and improving the treatment of other prisoners;
Discussions could later proceed to “larger political matters”;
A political solution to the war is possible, but only if the U.S. recognizes that it cannot defeat the Viet Cong militarily and cannot develop a strong GVN; time is on the side of the Viet Cong;
A political solution requires that the U.S. accept “in principle” four points (Vietnamese independence, U.S. troop withdrawal, establishment of a democratic and neutralist South Vietnam, and non-interference in internal Vietnamese affairs) as the basis for talks;
Talks to end the war based on these points can take place only between the U.S. and the NLF; the Front will not deal with Thieu and Ky, although GVN representatives could be included in the U.S. delegation;
The war in the North must be resolved separately between the U.S. and Hanoi;
Discussions on post-war political arrangements in South Vietnam can only involve the NLF and internal political forces outside the Front—not the GVN.
What does the message mean? The message represents an effort by the Communists—in the name of the NLF—to explore the willingness of the U.S. to resolve the war in the South by dealing directly with the Front. Beyond this, the Communists may hope to establish a dialogue through which the two sides can unofficially—but directly—come to an understanding of their respective views and positions on both the modalities and substance of a negotiated settlement. The prisoner exchange, in this event, would be primarily a device through which the two sides could demonstrate their good faith and thus create an environment favoring serious discussion of the broader issues.
This tactical gambit—almost certainly sanctioned by Hanoi—would be a logical outgrowth of Hanoi’s policy on negotiations as it has evolved since 1960. Since late last year, the Communists seem to have embarked on a campaign to improve the Front’s image both internally and internationally, a campaign that may reflect decisions embodied in the 13th Resolution of the Central Committee of the Lao Dong Party. In any event, beginning with the establishment of an NLF delegation in Hanoi, the Communists have increasingly emphasized the independence of the Front, its legitimacy as broadly representative of the South Vietnamese people, and the reasonableness of its policy regarding post-war developments. They have also sought to underscore their basic proposition that the war in the South can only be resolved by dealing directly with the NLF.
These nuances have reflected new emphasis on certain longstanding basic principles, rather than a real softening of Hanoi’s fundamental position. They have been accompanied by tactical shifts in the Communist negotiating posture, the first being the Trinh interview in January 1967 on the question of the bombing halt. The latest such shift—one leading to Dang’s message—is the proposition that the war in the South can be dealt with separately from the war in the North. This emphasis emerged in late June, and has been underscored in various [Page 1016] diplomatic contacts since the conference of DRV Ambassadors in early July. It is possible that the original Dang message of late July relates to matters discussed at that conference, i.e., that Hanoi had refined its political offensive to include an effort to establish direct contact between the Front and the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The four points listed by Dang as providing the basis for talks are consistent with Hanoi’s four points, and the differences in Dang’s formulation do not necessarily represent any softening in that regard.
If, by broaching the question of a prisoner exchange, the Communists were seeking to establish an avenue for political discussions with the U.S., their choice of this channel was probably influenced by several considerations. First, this is the most direct channel available—secure communications could be readily established. Because the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam represents U.S. policy there, and is charged with supervising our conduct of the war, he can speak on substantive matters more readily than U.S. Ambassadors in other countries. The contact is placed directly in a quasi-diplomatic context, implying acceptance—if not formal recognition—of the Front as a political entity. Finally, the Communists may feel—as other Vietnamese did—that Ambassador Bunker’s reputation as a negotiator was directly relevant to his appointment to the Saigon post.
Why was the message sent? One Communist objective in sending the message probably was to exacerbate GVN-U.S. relations by drawing us into direct contacts with the NLF. We believe, however, it is also a serious probe arising from their genuine willingness to explore the possibility of achieving a negotiated settlement on their quite rigid terms. We are inclined to doubt that it stems from any recognition by the Communists that their position is fundamentally weak. The strident professions of confidence in this message echo the dogmatic—and obstinate—faith in the validity of their People’s War doctrine reflected elsewhere in Communist statements. The Communists seem still to believe that they can outlast us in the war because of their assumption that public opposition to the war in the U.S. will ultimately erode our will to persist. They evidently believe our increasing presence in the South reinforces the validity of their increasingly nationalist propaganda appeal. They may also see the democratization of the GVN as affording them new opportunities to coalesce support among non-Communist opposition groups, and thus to broaden their political effectiveness.
On the other hand, their protestations may mask genuine concern that their own position in the South could weaken over time. They may find the cost of the war increasingly intolerable. They may also be apprehensive lest the strengthening of the GVN’s political posture gain real momentum over the long-term.
On balance, we feel that the initiative reflects a complex set of factors at work on their position. They probably now assume that the war will end ultimately in negotiations of some sort. They know they cannot win militarily, but they also believe that the U.S. cannot do so either. Thus neither side would be in a position to obtain its maximum objectives. While they believe they can more easily endure a “stalemate” than the U.S. can, they almost certainly recognize that their position could be weaker a year hence. In these circumstances, we believe that the message probably reflects a real interest in probing the U.S. position on key issues.3
  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, DCI (Helms) Files, Job 80–B01285A, DCI (Helms) Chrono, Aug-Dec 1967. Top Secret; Sensitive. In a November 11 covering note to the President, Helms wrote: “1. Attached hereto is our analysis of the message received from the NLF via the emissary who returned it to Saigon. 2. Nothing has occurred since October 27, when we received this message, to cause us to believe that the operation, to this point, is other than valid.”
  2. Tong returned to Saigon on October 26 with a letter of reply from Dang that had approval from COSVN. This letter included a request for the release of 10 prisoners held by the GVN and a restatement of the NLF platform. The letter is attached to the memorandum from Helms to Rostow, October 30. (Ibid., Executive Registry Subject Files, Job 80–R01580R, Vietnam)
  3. Difficulties in obtaining GVN concurrence in the release of the prisoners held up an immediate response. A message that called for the release of American and South Vietnamese prisoners as a demonstration of the NLF’s goodwill was sent back with both Sau Ha and Tong, who were also equipped with equipment necessary to make radio contact with the Americans. No discussions on political matters ever materialized, although continuing contacts resulted in the release of two American and several South Vietnamese prisoners. In turn, U.S. Government representatives arranged the release of six interned Viet Cong; among these was Dang’s wife, who was released on December 15. (Memorandum from Helms to Secretary of State William P. Rogers, January 27, 1969; ibid., DCI (Helms) Files, Job 80–B01285A, DCI (Helms) Chrono, Jan-Jun 1969)