225. Notes of Meeting1



  • The President
  • Secretary Rusk
  • Secretary Clifford
  • Ambassador Harriman
  • Ambassador Vance
  • General Goodpaster
  • General Taylor
  • Philip Habib
  • William Bundy
  • Under Secretary Katzenbach
  • General Johnson
  • Walt Rostow
  • George Christian
  • W. Jorden

The President: I want a most careful screening of the personnel in Paris—I want to be positive. I want the negotiators to get my feelings. I don’t want to influence you with my pessimism. I hope you’re optimistic.

Truman and Eisenhower have given me their reservations. They say be cautious about trusting them.2

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I’m glad we’re going to talk, but I’m not overly hopeful. Some of you think we want resolution of this in an election year. I want it resolved, but not because of the election. Don’t yield anything on that impression.

Just think of the national interest—now and ten years from now.3

Secretary Katzenbach: Here are the issues:

They’ll make a long statement denouncing U.S. aggression—“hear U.S. affirm conditions to stop bombing.” They’ll have a hard line on the bombing, and they’ll stay with it. If pressed, they’ll define “other acts of war” to include any and every violation of the border.
They will label the San Antonio formula as conditions—label them unacceptable.

Director Helms: They’ll be tough at first—may say no further meetings until bombing settled.

Secretary Rusk: They’ll probably make their statement public; we should do likewise. They’ll come in with a roar.

Secretary Clifford: We’ve been put on notice we’re being divided in two phases: bombing and acts of war; then other things.

Mr. Rostow: But they noted our position that we will be determined by March 31 speech.

Ambassador Harriman: I think their answer indicated they’re willing to hear our conditions for stopping the bombing.

The NVN signed an agreement in 1962 and never kept one word of it. So I’m under no illusions.

They’re arriving in Paris with a force of 43. They have asked for a villa. This indicates they are ready for phase I and phase II. They seem to be dug in for a period of time.

Secretary Rusk: Move with deliberation. May want to do some other works—if and when we see we can stop all bombing, may want to talk to USSR, get concessions from them.

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Ambassador Harriman: I suggest Cy Vance come back and forth—it’s only seven hours away.

Ambassador Vance: The government should speak with only one voice. Very harmful if otherwise.

Secretary Clifford: Suppose they say they want agreement on stopping bombing, do nothing else till that is done. Let’s face that very real problem.

Secretary Rusk: We would quote heavily from the March 31 speech about reduction of violence. They would have to take the burden of breaking off the talks. Make them impose the ultimatum.

Ambassador Harriman: We would have to carefully define “other acts of war”—not reconnaissance.

Secretary Clifford: They could make a sharp issue if they took the San Antonio formula and called upon us to adhere.

Ambassador Harriman: Because they’ve repudiated the San Antonio formula, they’ll probably use other approach.

The President: Assume they do say what Clark says, what do we say? Assume if you take advantage, everything here comes to naught.

Secretary Rusk: Start with points which go beyond our minimum position: DMZ, Laos Accords, control by ICC, etc.

General Johnson: Take no action that would impede military actions in the South.4

Secretary Rusk: If they ask for a cease-fire, our response should be mutual withdrawal of forces, amnesty, application of Manila formula.

Secretary Katzenbach: It is unlikely they’ll propose a cease-fire. More likely to say they are going to refrain as gesture, so they can control it.

The President: Should we propose mutual withdrawal, re-institute DMZ, supervised election?

Ambassador Vance: Might propose DMZ.

Mr. Rostow: The critical question will be at what stage we want discussions of political settlement in the South. Earlier we get to that, the better off we’ll be. They may try to move us to more inhibited military position.

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Natural way to end this war is not a cease-fire, but to get at a political settlement before there’s a cease-fire.

Secretary Rusk: Advantage in our making strong case at opening. The moment we agree Hanoi has a right to talk about political reorganization in the South, that is a big concession.

Mr. Rostow: I wholly agree.

The President: Shouldn’t Bunker be getting Thieu to go ahead on talking with the NLF?

Secretary Katzenbach: I don’t think Hanoi wants to talk about a political settlement in the South. They’ll say we should talk to NLF about that.

Secretary Clifford: Combine March 31 speech and their response of April 3. You were willing to take first step to de-escalate. We can’t say publicly, but San Antonio has been disposed of. They didn’t respond to San Antonio.

General Taylor: On the cease-fire question, at some point I think they’ll try. Against our interest, because it takes weeks and months to put into effect. We should say get experts to work on it while we continue to talk in Paris.

Secretary Rusk: It has merit.

Secretary Clifford: They may say “we’re prepared to offer a cease-fire.” Have to face up to it. Makes it difficult for us to explain why we can’t accept it.

The President: Don’t you trump their cease-fire by Manila formula?

Secretary Clifford: They then say they’re willing to work toward it, but while doing that, have a cease-fire.

Ambassador Vance: U.S. can’t speak for the GVN on this.

Mr. Rostow: (1) We agree to talk about cease-fire. (2) But try to push talks in another direction.

The President: What would you do about stopping the bombing?

Mr. Rostow: Start with March 31—assumptions about their behavior—then stop.

Secretary Katzenbach: I think they’ll reject conditions.

Secretary Rusk: Ave [Harriman] could say we’re willing to stop unconditionally, but also talk about what you’re going to do unconditionally.

Director Helms: The leaders think they’re in a position to win—want you to give something more.

Ambassador Harriman: When they accepted March 31, they were riding high. A lot has changed in the past month. They thought they were winning. How they judge last month may be something else.

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General Goodpaster: We’ll come quickly to force withdrawals. We might take this up in trial areas so their performance can be judged. We and they don’t have some measure of relative positions. They may be more optimistic.5

The President: In your opinion, have we increased or decreased our military strength because of bombing curbs?

General Goodpaster: What they’ve been able to do not much different from what they could have done. Their advantage though is more ease in supply and pulling people off repairs in North.

Mr. Rostow: We were pinning down establishment by instrument bombing.

General Johnson: I don’t think it’s hurt much at this stage. I disagree with General Goodpaster on some thing—the level of terror in October, culminating in Tet, was necessary for him to try to regain losses. Now he didn’t score well in second wave. I think he hurts.

Ambassador Vance: I think we should define our objectives in the South. Fight and talk, or reduce violence?

Secretary Rusk: Basically it’s status quo ante—pulling North and South apart militarily—shooting for time for Asians to look after selves.

Mr. Rostow: The crucial problem is how to deal with a coalition government.

Mr. Bundy: The principle of the South Vietnamese settling it themselves should be our position.

Ambassador Harriman: I hope Bunker will get Thieu to carry out his campaign promise to bring some into government who have a following—like Huong.

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Secretary Rusk: Should have a later meeting, before the group leaves Thursday.6

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Meeting Notes File. No classification marking. The meeting ended at 3 p.m. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) A summary of the meeting and a full transcript of it are ibid., Transcripts of Meetings in the Cabinet Room. Additional notes of the meeting, taken by Harold Johnson, are in the U.S. Army Military History Institute, Harold K. Johnson Papers, Notes on Meetings with the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, and the President, Dec. 1967–June 1967.
  2. According to the transcript of the meeting, the President stated: “I talked to President Truman the other day out at Kansas City. He expressed some of the reservations that he had. I talked to President Eisenhower and he has given me some of the reservations that he had. I don’t agree, in total, with what either of them say, but the general feeling both of them have is that we have to be very cautious and not be very trusting with these folks, because first of all, you can’t always believe everything they say. And second of all, they don’t always carry out what they agree to do as both Presidents have reminded me in the number of talks that I have had with them. So I want to stress that first of all I’m glad that we are going to talk to them but I am not overly hopeful as I said in my statement. And second, I know that a good many of you think that I have a good deal at stake and the government has a good deal at stake and this is an election year and we sure would like to do what we could with all of these things that come about in a resolution. I’m very anxious to bring about a resolution but not because it’s election year and not because of my own political state because I made that decision on March 31st. So you don’t need to feel any expediency required of me of anything. No political conditions that I can see with the parties.”
  3. In an April 23 memorandum to Harriman and Vance, Goodpaster described the relationship between the objectives of both sides in the negotiations and their relative military abilities on the battlefield. In a May 4 covering memorandum transmitting a copy of Goodpaster’s memorandum to the President, Rostow wrote: “You should know that Governor Harriman, at a meeting last Thursday of Katzenbach’s committee, argued, in effect, that the ‘domestic political scene’ required that we seek a quick settlement, even at some cost to our interests. Andy Goodpaster today told me that after presenting a paper to Harriman (copy attached) he replied: we can’t get all we’d like because of domestic political factors. Harriman may be reflecting your wishes on the matter. But—if not—I would assume that the President should judge the domestic political factor at each stage of the negotiation, in the context of each negotiating issue. If that judgment is correct, you may wish to tell our negotiators on Monday that their job is to achieve U.S. objectives in Southeast Asia and leave it to the President to assess at each stage, on each issue, the extent to which domestic politics plays a role—if, indeed, it has a role.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, Walt Rostow, Vol. 74)
  4. In CM-3284–68 to Harriman, May 8, General Johnson argued the necessity for “exerting maximum military pressure on the VC/NVA during the negotiations,” since it would keep them paying a price, prevent them from bettering their military position, and force them to negotiate seriously. (Department of Defense, Official Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 911/305 (8 May 68) IR 3864) In making a similar argument to Clifford in JCSM–289–68, May 8, Johnson, for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote: “In the final analysis, no combination of concessions which North Vietnam/National Liberation Front are likely to make unilaterally would afford the allied forces advantages commensurate with those afforded North Vietnam by the cessation of bombardment.” (Ibid.)
  5. According to the transcript of the meeting, Goodpaster’s full statement was: “Sir, I think that we will come pretty quickly to this question of force withdrawals. This will be one of the blue chip questions. There are some possibilities here which might be considered. It’s possible that this could be taken up in trial areas initially and their performance could be observed and we would learn the extent to which we could be sure over what they have done, and that we can, in fact, verify. I think it would be valuable all around to us and to the South Vietnamese if they saw through actual experience in a selected area what the outcome was, whether they are able to maintain their position, so that this topic, I think has got to feel right to them. In a more general way, it has seemed to me that the negotiations, to have validity, cannot help but to be coupled with the situation on the battlefield. And if a step of this kind involving force withdrawal in a certain area can be accomplished in a way that meets our objectives, we would then lay the basis for carrying this thing forward, extending it to other areas. It could be that along with such force withdrawals there could be coupled other forms of de-escalation. But all of this, I would think, lies very well down the road. There are still ambiguities. I’m sure there will remain ambiguities as to just what the situation is as to our military strength on the battlefield and as to theirs. We probably don’t have the same assessment today as to how well we’re doing and how well they’re doing.”
  6. In a May 6 memorandum to Wheeler, Harold Johnson wrote: “Have had a two-hour inconclusive meeting at White House with the negotiators. Top man was very clear that no yielding on any point required for reasons of political expediency. He is concerned with security interests of this nation one year from now and ten years from now. There will be another meeting later on this week. Harriman, nudged by Vance, seeking guidance on military objective. I stated that political objective was needed first. Rusk stated that basic objective is status quo ante with hope that it could be permanent for at least a few years. I then said that military objective should be elimination of enemy force to the extent that police could assure maintenance of law and order in South Vietnam. Vance appeared to be searching for a mutual de-escalation. I believe that on basis of discussion today the next meeting can be more productive and more definitive.” (U.S. Army Military History Institute, Harold K. Johnson Papers, Notes on Meetings with the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, and the President, Dec. 1967–June 1967)