5. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

The reason this improbable message interests me is because while recognizing all the reasons Hanoi might wish to sweat us out through 1968, I have come to believe it conceivable, if not probable, that they are trying to get out of the war but don’t know how.2

By “don’t know how” I mean they cannot openly negotiate with us. They must have a deal which saves them minimum face with the NLF and the Chinese to announce before negotiations are acknowledged. They lose their bargaining leverage if they are known to be negotiating, because the NLF might bug out.3

If this is so, the message we should send back is this, and no more: Your message to Salisbury has been delivered. You will be hearing from us soon.

We should then send a direct message via your friend, Ne Win in a sealed envelope.4 It should be a direct communication, unopened, without intermediaries, between the U.S. Government and Hanoi. It could restate the kind of settlement we would envisage, but its major message should be technical; namely, that we believe a secure facility could be provided for our emissaries to meet without diplomatic or [Page 15]journalistic knowledge, close to Rangoon. We have faith in the security and integrity of Ne Win in providing such a facility. It would be close enough so that courier service to their embassy and ours in Rangoon, providing secure communications to both parties, could be available.

We have canvassed all the other possibilities; but Rangoon appears the best place. Ne Win, after your conversations, would be reliable and willing to keep out of the act as an intermediary. It is a military dictatorship with effective control. There is no substantial Western press corps. Even then, I am confident that the right way to mount it is out in the country.

Strangely enough, just before lunch today I spoke to Sec. Rusk and Sec. McNamara about the need to mount such a direct communication with Hanoi. Perhaps Moscow would do; but I have the strong feeling that these fellows in Hanoi may want to talk to us without Poles, Italians, Canadians, British, or even Russians in the act.

Be clear, I don’t give this very high odds. But I have had the nagging feeling that they could well be in a position of wanting to get out and not knowing how. I can even reconstruct the reasons for this view.

Therefore, I think it is worth a try.5

Walt
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Sunflower, Vol. I. Top Secret; Literally Eyes Only.
  2. Reference is to the message from Pham Van Dong delivered via Salisbury; see Document 3. The outgoing Vietnamese Ambassador told Rusk and Unger that Dong’s statements did not represent a “significant change” in the DRV position but instead “was a trial balloon launched to test Communist China’s reaction.” (Memorandum of conversation, January 9; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL US-VIET S) As a follow-up to Goldberg’s statement of September 22, 1966, offering a bombing halt in exchange for private assurances from the North Vietnamese that they would promptly de-escalate the fighting, on December 31 the President had offered to meet the Vietnamese Communists “any time and anywhere.” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966, Book II, p. 1464)
  3. Rostow added the final sentence by hand.
  4. On January 5 Rostow sent a draft letter to Rusk for his approval. He stressed that the letter had “no status” and that the President knew about it but had not seen it. In the letter the President called on Ho Chi Minh to arrange for direct and secret talks at a neutral and secure site, preferably in Burma. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Marigold, Vol. II) The letter was not sent. Burmese President Ne Win’s interest came about through the intercession of his fellow countryman U Thant. In a December 31, 1966, letter, Goldberg had requested that U Thant ascertain “what tangible response” the DRV would undertake following a cessation of bombing. For text, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1966, pp. 895–896.
  5. Rostow added a handwritten postscript: “A full scenario, prepared some days ago, is attached.” It is not printed.