85. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

3562. Subject: February 18 call on Kosygin—Vietnam.

I broached Vietnam by saying we deeply disappointed with latest developments. We did not know why other side had responded in such a manner. As Kosygin probably knew, we had had a very direct and negative reply to what we believed was reasonable proposal. We did not know if other side had been serious in starting discussions in first place. Perhaps North Vietnam was under pressure from Chinese, or perhaps it felt that under pressure of criticism from different quarters, including some quarters in US, we would quit. In any event, people in Washington were pleased to see indication that USSR also wanted to see problem settled. I said I did not know where we should go from here. As Kosygin knew we had shown great restraint: our policy was not to destroy North Vietnam, and we had also restricted our bombings to exclude ten mile area of Hanoi. However there had been no similar response from other side. Yet, as President had said, door to negotiations remains open and we ready discuss political settlement at any time.
I then pointed out that during a 4 or 5 day Tet holiday an estimated 25,000 tons of supplies had been sent southward, i.e., as many supplies had been shipped in 4 or 5 days as normally had been sent in a month. Thus we wondered what the purpose of this exercise was.2 I also noted that from earlier discussions and from statements by other side we had understood that question was not only that of bombings, but also that if they stopped infiltration we would have to stop our reinforcements. We had made it clear that we would accept that. I said that if Kosygin had any suggestion about any further step, or any other comments, I would be glad to transmit them to my government.
Kosygin said he wished make it clear he not authorized negotiate for North Vietnam and therefore could not say his remarks would represent Vietnamese point of view. He did not wish to mislead us. However, he could state his own views. His estimate of latest events [Page 187]was as follows: Vietnamese had for first time stated they ready negotiate if bombings were stopped unconditionally; this was first time they had done so and it was a public statement. When he came to England, he supported this proposal publicly. He did it because he had good reason for taking such a step. Although he believed that mediators in this situation either complicated the problem or merely pretended they doing something, he took that step because he had seen a basis for US-Vietnamese talks. Wilson had been in touch with Washington but not on his, Kosygin’s, initiative. However, Wilson kept him informed and he was in touch with Hanoi. Then came latest message, which had nature of ultimatum. It said that if by such and such time, i.e., 10 o’clock, Hanoi failed to do certain things, bombings would resume. Time given to Hanoi was very short—just a few hours—and situation was even more complicated because of time difference between London and Hanoi. Thus there was no opportunity for Hanoi to consider message and conduct necessary consultations. In fact, US received Ho Chi Minh’s reply after bombing had already resumed. Kosygin continued that in his view US had made basic mistake. First, nothing would have happened if US had delayed bombings another three or four days. Second, US had couched its message in terms of an ultimatum. Third, US talked about 25,000 tons going to South—nature of which he did not know—but US said nothing about its own reinforcements. During that period US had sent additional troops, had moved its naval vessels to North Vietnamese shores, and had increased number its aircraft carriers in area from three to five. US accusing other side of having sent in 25,000 tons but US itself probably sent as much as 100,000 tons. In other words, US seems believe its infiltration is all right but infiltration by other side is not. Thus other side has no confidence in US intentions. Moreover, US seems discount China, which grave error. China wants continuation and expansion of conflict. In this connection, he wished point out that his remarks in London that negotiations should take place had provoked fury in China. This was another proof of his step having been a deliberate and responsible one. Yet what he received from US was message that bombings would be resumed if something wasn’t done by 10 o’clock. If US wanted to conduct bombings it was of course its own decision. Kosygin then said that he had also advanced that thought that infiltration by both sides should cease. He repeated that he did not understand how US could object to infiltration from North while continuing its own infiltration. After all, Vietnam was one country and Vietnamese were one people, whereas US infiltration was of interventionist character.
After reiterating that he not authorized represent Vietnamese views and that his remarks reflected only Soviet views, Kosygin said [Page 188]Soviets not confident US proposal had been very serious.3 Confidence was most important in this situation. While it perhaps inadvisable to rake up history, he wished recall that he, Chairman of USSR Council of Ministers, had been in Hanoi when US started bombings.4 Why did not US turn to him at that time and explain to him its problems? Another example of this need for confidence was fact that despite fact US and USSR had reached understanding to reduce their military expenditures US raised its budget without informing USSR. As for USSR, it kept its word; in any event, if it had deemed necessary to take certain steps it would have informed other side.
Kosygin continued that if statement by DRV Foreign Minister had opened possibilities for talks, those possibilities had been rudely disrupted by latest US step. Soviets did not know reasons for this US action, although I had mentioned some. Perhaps we had a situation here where policy was one thing and statements another. In any event, some forces were playing with fire in that area. Chinese want extension of war, and this is why they reacted the way they did to his statement in London. US was helping those forces by its actions; US left USSR open vis-à-vis China, it also left North Vietnam open vis-à-vis China. Net result is that Chinese view has triumphed, and Chinese can now say that all those efforts were nothing but a masquerade.5 Thus [Page 189]problem was now to find way toward unconditional cessation of bombings so as to start negotiations. He wished to stress, however, that question was only of direct US-North Vietnam contact, for North Vietnam’s prestige was involved here. In addition, he wanted to say frankly that no third party must seek gain advantage from its activities in this situation; much more important thing was at stake here, i.e., search for peaceful settlement. As to how to proceed further, he did not know. Road he had conceived of had been disrupted by US ultimatum. Chinese now very happy for they seek increased tension and hope for US-Soviet confrontation. US assisting them and this alarming to USSR. Kosygin said he could not venture to propose anything constructive now. He had no basis for doing so and he did not wish to make unrealistic propositions. He had spoken very frankly with me—as he would not have spoken with anyone else—because he knew that I would transmit his views only to President.
[sic] After thanking Kosygin for his comments, I said I wished to make a few remarks of my own. I said I did not believe it justified compare other side’s infiltration with sending of our own reinforcements. For one thing, we were in South Vietnam at request SVN Govt. Moreover, our bombings were for purpose of impeding North Vietnamese supplies to South, whereas North Vietnamese could not stop our own supplies. Thus stopping of our bombings gave advantage to North Vietnamese.
Kosygin interjected that this interesting reasoning. After all, NLF—which certainly more solid organization than US puppets in Saigon and which controlled three fourths of SVN territory—also asking North Vietnam for support.
I continued we had told North Vietnam that if they stopped infiltration we would stop our reinforcements. Important point here was that North Vietnam should not gain any advantage.
Kosygin again interrupted by asserting US was talking from position of strength.
Referring to general question of cessation of bombings, I said our position had been clear and I did not think there was need to dwell on it in detail. US always prepared to stop bombings if such cessation would not result in improvement NVN position; in other words, if infiltration from North stopped we would also stop our reinforcements. I continued that in their reply North Vietnamese had advanced again demand that we accept their Four Points and recognize NLF as genuine [Page 190]representative of SVN, etc., which tantamount to demand for our complete capitulation. This connection, I said we could not accept view that Vietnam one country and regarded Vietnam as consisting of two separate countries. Kosygin said he knew that our positions on this point were different.
I agreed that Chinese wanted exploit situation and wished US-Soviet confrontation. I also agreed that direct US-NVN talks would be desirable, although we would accept any other method of negotiations, such as through third parties or at a conference. As to question of prestige, we did not believe it should be important factor. For instance, if North Vietnam not prepared say they had sent troops to South, that would be all right with US. This was why we had not asked them to make any public statement on subject. Main problem was to stop conflict.
I said I understood that Kosygin was not in position to negotiate, but wished nevertheless reiterate we wanted settlement. On other hand, while I did not know what further decisions US would take and did not want to make any misleading statements, I thought that if in face certain US steps, such as restriction of bombings around Hanoi, other side continues killing people, including Americans, in South, US would feel free take any action necessary to stop infiltration. For our part, we had made main step in advance of any settlement in stating that, despite all the money we had spent in South Vietnam on construction of bases, etc., we would withdraw from South Vietnam. I said my govt was grateful for Kosygin’s actions, including those he had taken while in London, to see this problem settled.
After reiterating he not representing North Vietnam, Kosygin said US must realize its bombings, defoliation, operations, etc., not successful. Thus US must look for constructive steps. US must realize North Vietnam between hammer and anvil. It must look forward and also look back, for Chinese want to heat up situation. This was why he had made his statement in London. In fact, he could tell me that even earlier USSR had sought a political settlement. China, which strictly nationalistic, has expansionist aspirations in Asia, including such countries as India, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, etc. Thus US must keep this in mind—it must take account of these sharp corners in international situation. He continued that he knew that objectively we would agree there was no Saigon govt, even though we would of course never admit that. Saigon regime was sitting on island surrounded by sea of civil war. Its situation could be compared to that of Kolchak or Denikin during Russian civil war. Also, it could be compared to position of Archangel govt, against which he himself had fought. US, as well as others, had sought to make use of those governments but all that ended in failure. Now US administers oxygen to Saigon regime. Of course one could sustain life by oxygen but he did [Page 191]not know for how long, as he no physician. But even if US were to fight another five years, what would situation be then. Vietnamese would still be there for no one could expect them to leave their country. Consequently, settlement must be sought earlier rather than later. Of course, there was internal dissent in US over this problem, there were Goldwaters and Nixons in US, but he was confident that they would not be supported by US people if a settlement were reached. He said he wished repeat that what should be looked for were constructive steps, certainly not ultimata: US should not send messages stating that something should be done by 10 o’clock for it would receive reply that would make it necessary start all over again. In sum, he felt situation not simple.
I said that as Kosygin probably knew, we had given North Vietnamese our suggestions as to what could be discussed and we had also told them in advance we would be prepared continue Tet suspension of bombing. Thus, there no question of any last-minute actions on our part. As to South Vietnam Govt, I pointed out that they were developing new Constitution and would have elections, and that we were prepared let South Vietnamese people decide what they want.
Kosygin said that in concluding our discussion on Vietnam, he wished to stress that USSR favored political rather than military solution. He emphasized, however, that this statement was strictly private and not for publication. I assured him that I fully understood. Referring again to message he had transmitted to Hanoi from London, he said he knew it was hopeless the minute he had read it.
As Kosygin indicated he wished break off discussion on Vietnam, I raised another subject, leased line for our Embassy. However, after my initial remarks on this subject, Kosygin apologized and said he wished ask me a question relating to Vietnam. He then asked me directly if Chinese had approached us re possibility of negotiations on Vietnam. When I said that to best of my knowledge they had not, he asked me if I was absolutely certain, noting that perhaps there were channels with which I not familiar. I told him I had seen all reports of our conversations with Chinese in Warsaw and could tell him that they did not amount to anything; they consisted essentially of constant Chinese accusations of US for helping Taiwan, having aggressive designs, etc.
Discussion then turned to leased line (septel).
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/SUNFLOWER. Top Secret; Immediate; Nodis; Sunflower Plus. Received at 4:08 p.m.
  2. Thompson informed the Department that he planned to cite specifically the stepped-up North Vietnamese infiltration as the reason for the change in the formula sent through the British because Kosygin’s interpreter remarked to him the night before: “That was quite a switch you pulled on us in the text of your proposal.” (Telegram 3533 from Moscow, February 17; ibid., POL 27–14 VIET/SUNFLOWER)
  3. In telegram 139631 to Moscow, February 17, Bundy reported that he had seen Zinchuk prior to this Thompson-Kosygin talk. From the discussion, Bundy had determined that the North Vietnamese had already briefed the Soviets on their reply to Johnson’s first letter, which stated that the North Vietnamese “simply could not talk in any fashion as long as the bombing was not stopped.” The Soviets still had credibility with the DRV leadership, which was important since the North Vietnamese still desired “to deal with and through the Soviets.” However, with the “present action” on the heels of the pre-emptive bombings that ended the initiative in Warsaw the previous December, the Soviets now wondered “whether it had become the basic U.S. view that the military situation was steadily improving from our standpoint and that we therefore did not really want negotiations at the present time in the belief that the situation had become steadily more favorable to us.” (Ibid.) Over 2 weeks later, Under Secretary of State Eugene Rostow confirmed this lingering pessimistic opinion among the Soviets. In a March 3 conversation among Ambassador Dobrynin, Ambassador at Large Harriman, and Rostow, Dobrynin asserted that there was a widespread belief that the administration did not want negotiations in the near future so that it “could pursue a military solution.” (Memorandum of conversation, March 3; ibid.)
  4. Kosygin was on a State visit to the DRV when President Johnson ordered the initiation of the Rolling Thunder bombing program on February 13, 1965.
  5. Soviet officials expressed special concerns about the U.S. actions that would move North Vietnam further under the influence of China. As reported in telegram 140351 to Moscow, February 19, Zinchuk raised the specter of secret Washington-Peking contacts in the discussion with Bundy. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/SUNFLOWER) In telegram 3570 from Moscow, February 20, Thompson reported evidence of a special concern over U.S.-Chinese contacts in Warsaw. (Ibid.) The previous day, in telegram 3568 from Moscow, Thompson also reported that mining Haiphong would cause an extreme reaction in Moscow. (Ibid.) In a February 21 conversation with British official Michael Stewart, Kohler attributed Soviet involvement in the Sunflower episode not only to Wilson’s actions but also to the “profound fear and hostility all Russians feel towards China.” (Ibid.) Perhaps, as the Ambassador suggested in telegram 3622 from Moscow, February 23, Kosygin had not mentioned the necessity for American troop withdrawals from Vietnam because of the Chinese expansionist threat to Southeast Asia. (Ibid.)