211. Telegram From the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State 1

6113. 1. Septel transmits an English translation of full text of note which I received at 1600 today from North Vietnamese Charge Nguyen Chan. Operative paragraph is as follows:

“In answer to the note of the American Government dated April 23, 1968,2 the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam believes that it is necessary for Hanoi and Washington to engage in conversations promptly. The Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam has given instructions to Mr. Do-Phat-Quang, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to the Peoples Republic of Poland, to be prepared to enter into discussions with the Ambassador of the United States at Warsaw the 30th of April 1968 or several days thereafter, regarding the place and the date of conversations between the two parties.”

2. After Hurwitch and I read this text, we observed that the suggestion of Warsaw was not really responsive to our note of April 23, in which we had proposed “additional capitals, not previously considered by either side,” for the limited purpose of agreeing on a site and time for the proposed contacts. Chan’s reply was a bland but studied statement that his government was fully aware of the contents of our note of April 23.

3. We then went on to point out that his unofficial French translation used the word “conversations” rather than “contacts” in this paragraph. I asked him to check this against the Vietnamese text and to see if this was an accurate translation. Chan studied the text and confirmed that it was. (Our Embassy Vietnamese language officer confirms that “conversations” is correct.) I asked if he could explain the meaning of this change in wording from “contacts” to “conversations.” He referred to AFP story from Hanoi which had characterized his Embassy as a “letter-box,” and said he was only authorized to deliver these notes, not to explain them to us.

4. I went on to say that, without prejudice to what Washington might feel about their nomination of Warsaw again, this change in vocabulary was bound to introduce “complexities” and we would [Page 605] doubtless need some explanation of what this was all about. Did it, for example, involve the complete elision of the “contacts” phase of the process, or were they merely attempting to hold “contacts” under a guise? Chan simply repeated his status as a postman, not an interpreter.

5. I finally said that I, too, would speak as a postman and would therefore refrain from comment on all the statements which were made in the first two paragraphs of his note. Instead, I would assure him that, despite the several confusing questions raised by his third paragraph, we would send the full text to Washington immediately.3

6. Comment: This note is obviously a very tricky maneuver which merits careful study. It looks to me from its tenor that it may be intended for publication. However, even in a public forum, it would seem to beg some explanation. On the other hand, it may be worded with deliberate imprecision in order to evoke another “Trollope ploy,” since, read at its most liberal variant, it would suggest that “conversations” of substance could start even while the bombing continued. The price we would have to pay for achieving this movement would be the agreement to meet for a limited purpose at the Ambassador-in-residence level at Warsaw, thereby enabling Hanoi to claim one brass ring on the first swing of the merry-go-round.

7. It is doubtful that I will get any explanations of the third paragraph through Chan, even though I asked for them. It is also a moot question whether a note from Washington asking for explanations would advance matters substantially, since they presumably expect us [Page 606] to piece the puzzle together from its internal construction. Given the fact that paragraph 2 talks about ceasing bombing (but does not pose this as a prior condition to “conversations”) and given the fact that the business in Warsaw is characterized as “discussions” (word taken from our note of April 23) it would seem to me that there is a reasonable case to assume that the “contact” phase has been dropped.

8. A reply from Washington, carefully phrased to assure that Ambassador Gronouski would talk only about time and place, but also assure that the next immediate phase would be full-fledged substantive conversation while bombing and other acts of war continue, would put us in position to assume a pure “fight-talk, talk-fight” situation, possibly with less strain on our alliances than the three-phase scenario proposed in our note of April 23. It would be trading some “form” for some “substance,” and, in the long run, possibly giving us the better of the bargain.

9. On the other hand, merely accepting their note as it now stands, without stipulating our own provisions, runs the very real risk of letting Hanoi turn the Ambassador-in-residence “discussions” into a “contact” phase in which Ambassador Gronouski would be expected, as a condition precedent to agreeing upon a date and place for conversations, to “determine the unconditional cessation of bombing and all other acts of war,” as DRV specified in its original note proposing Warsaw.

10. It would seem to me therefore that, if we are willing to accept Warsaw as a place for “discussions,” we should stipulate that those “discussions” are exclusively to fix the date and place for “conversations” which would address all matters of substance between the two parties, including those matters mentioned in paragraph 2 of Chan’s note. This would assure that subject of bombing could only come up in the “conversations” rather than in “discussions,” and in some place like Geneva rather than Warsaw.

11. If this, however, is to be done, it should also be pointed out that the very last words in the third paragraph offer an ambiguity. “The two sides,” as it reads in Vietnamese, or “the two parties,” as it reads in French, is broad enough so that it could include the U.S. and all its allies on one side of the table, and the DRV and its friends and allies on the other side. Whether it is prudent at this stage to try to pin this one with precision in a reply is questionable. It might presumably, however, be a major issue in the “discussions” that Ambassador Gronouski may be called on to conduct. The imprecision with which it has deliberately been phrased in this particular note is possibly dictated by the problems Hanoi will have in handling the question of Chinese association with these “conversations.”

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files, 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/CROCODILE. Secret; Flash; Nodis; Crocodile. Received at 8:02 a.m.
  2. See footnote 3, Document 204.
  3. The first part of the note reads: “The Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam has suggested to the Government of the United States the choice of Phnom Penh or Warsaw as a place for preliminary contacts between representatives with the rank of ambassador, with a view to prepare for official conversations between both sides. But the American side has raised objections; in addition it has advanced unjustified conditions for the choice of a site and has proposed fifteen other places. The Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam has declared that the fifteen places proposed by the United States are inadequate and that the objections of the American Government to the choice of Phnom Penh and of Warsaw are without foundation. The Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam reaffirms that at this time. It is clear that the Government of the United States is deliberately seeking to delay conversations between both sides. This attitude is in complete contradiction to the declarations of President L.B. Johnson and of other American officials saying that they desire prompt negotiations with the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and are ready to go anywhere. In the meantime, the Government of the United States continues to intensify the naval and air bombing against an important part of the territory of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, from the seventeenth to the twentieth parallels; the Navy of the United States continues to violate Vietnamese territorial waters and Vietnamese air space. The Government of the United States must cease unconditionally bombing and all other acts of war on all the territory of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Such is the legitimate demand of all the Vietnamese people and of the progressive people in the United States.” (Telegram 6114 from Vientiane, April 27; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files, 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/CROCODILE)