312. Telegram From the Embassy in France to the Department of State1

18692/Delto 524. From Harriman and Vance.


We have reached a stage in the Paris talks which makes it desirable to take stock of where we are and to consider where we go from here.

Part I—Where We Are

The present position we have taken—as reflected in the Phase 1-Phase 2, proposal—is only in the early stages of exploration. Hanoi has had this proposal before it in general form since June 26, and in fairly detailed form since July 15. The North Vietnamese did not propose a new meeting last week, commenting that they were in the process of examining the Honolulu communique.
It is possible that, if we stick to our present course, we will in time be able to extract the understanding we are seeking from Hanoi. In addition to taking a good deal of time, any undertaking they will give us will probably not be explicit enough to enable us to know with confidence what they will do after we stop the bombing. We are likely to confront slowly paced, minor and ambiguous concessions as Hanoi tries to get a bombing cessation at the least price.
We may, of course, have a further reading at this Wednesday’s session, but we so not believe anything sufficiently new will come out of this meeting, or of any discussion in the near future.
We believe Hanoi’s thinking about the pace and content of the Paris talks is influenced to some extent by coming events in the US. These events—conventions, elections, change of administration—set a time frame which we need to take into account as we estimate what the other side is likely to do.
This forces us to look at what happens in the next two months without clear and visible progress here. If we do nothing new, we leave the initiative and timing to Hanoi. Two major factors then come to bear: [Page 913]
The possibility of our taking action which may deter the launching of the expected enemy attacks and thus save American and allied lives; and
The prospect that the month of August, and particularly the Democratic convention, will produce a further division of domestic US opinion which will severely weaken the base which is necessary for the long, hard negotiations required to achieve a just solution. It is possible that this division may become so deep that it will force the new administration to a precipitous withdrawal with the result that all our sacrifices to achieve US objectives will have been for naught.

If the enemy mounts his expected major offensive, the only way we gain is if the attacks are sharp and decisively defeated in short order. We note that General Abrams is confident that the attacks will be repelled, but we also note that estimates from Saigon are that the enemy may be able to sustain major attacks for up to two months. Thus it would appear that the odds for a quick, decisive outcome are not great. US casualties will have a bad effect at home and civilian destruction will create problems in South Viet-Nam.

Part II—A New Course

A major change in these prospects is possible during the month of August. It would necessarily involve a speed-up of our own timetable and, admittedly, some risks. On our part, it would require a return to the San Antonio formula in which we would make certain assumptions regarding Hanoi’s actions after the cessation. On Hanoi’s part, it would involve the one thing that Hanoi had been willing to commit itself to—that is a readiness to move into substantive negotiations immediately following a full cessation of bombing and all other activities involving the use of force on or within the territory of the DRV.
As we look back on March 31, we can see that our initiative forestalled Hanoi’s plans and greatly lengthened our lease on US public opinion, while actually stimulating Saigon far more than it was upset. An August initiative by us would certainly repeat the first two effects. It would have risks in Saigon (and some with our allies), but Thieu has put himself in a much stronger position since April and our most sensitive allies—on Bundy’s reading—trust this administration and probably would give us the benefit of the doubt.
To justify our moving in this direction, we could point to the lull in Communist military activity in Saigon and elsewhere in Viet-Nam. A case can be made that his has now continued long enough to serve as a plausible rationale for implementation of the San Antonio formula. It can be cited in such a way as to bring world opinion to bear as a constraint on the future actions of the North Vietnamese. Such a public position, combined with a cessation of bombing, may pre-empt a major NVA/VC offensive.
It would make no difference if Hanoi publicly claimed that we had stopped the bombing without reciprocal action on their part. This has always been implicit in the Phase 1-Phase 2 formula; what will count will be what they do rather than what they say. Moreover we can draw our own conclusions for the public.
The essence of this course of action would be that, after consultation with our allies, we would tell Hanoi privately that we are prepared to stop the bombing and all other activities involving the use of force on or within the territory of the DRV, and the President will announce this shortly. (We propose that this be done no more than two days before the President’s announcement, so that Hanoi would have insufficient time to react.) When we tell them, we would state the assumptions on which we are proceeding. These assumptions would be:
Within a very few days following the cessation of bombing, we expect to begin serious, substantive talks (on an our side-your side basis) in which the GVN would participate and in which the DRV would be free to bring to the table any South Vietnamese elements they see fit.
The de-militarized status of the DMZ would be restored. No military personnel or equipment of any sort should be located in, or moved through the DMZ. There will be no artillery or other fire across the DMZ and no massing of forces in the area of the DMZ in such a way as to constitute a direct military threat.
There will be no indiscriminate attacks against major centers such as Saigon, Hue and Danang.
There will be no increase of North Vietnamese force levels in South Viet-Nam. (It is worth noting here that the good flying weather that will continue through October will provide us with a greater ability to verify this assumption between now and October than between November and April.)
We and our allies must be prepared to resume the bombing if Hanoi invalidates our assumptions. Obviously no threat would be made to Hanoi in this regard.
In presenting this proposal to the GVN and ICC, we believe that three points should be made:
If assumptions are invalidated we will resume bombing;
We will not engage in any follow-on substantive talks without GVN presence on an our side-your side basis; and
This action may deter NVA/VC from mounting the major attacks that are expected.

Concurrent with the actual presentation to the North Vietnamese, a letter should be sent to Kosygin recalling his assurances in the earlier exchange, and informing him of precisely what we are telling Hanoi. It is suggested that the letter not require a Soviet answer, [Page 915] but leave it open to the Soviets whether they wish to reply. We should inform the Soviet Ambassadors in Washington and Paris. The Soviet Ambassadors in these capitals will undoubtedly be informed of the letter by their government, as they have been in the past.

Part III—Some Further Thoughts

We recognize that our short-term objectives in para 12 above do not address a basic long-term objective of securing NVN withdrawal from SVN. This is a subject for early consideration in the substantive talks with the ultimate objective of ending NVN movement of troops and supplies into SVN and the withdrawal of NVN military and paramilitary forces from SVN, Laos and Cambodia.
While we cannot be sure that the course of action presented in Part II will forestall a new NVN offensive, it may well do so. Thus, in addition to moving the negotiations forward, stopping the bombing could over the near future save the lives of many American troops who might otherwise be killed in defeating North Vietnamese attacks. Moreover, the pre-emption of a major North Vietnamese offensive would forestall Hanoi from achieving the psychological and political objectives which Secretary Clifford, General Wheeler and the US Mission believe to be the primary purpose of such attacks. If, indeed, Hanoi launched major attacks along lines of Tet or May offensives after a bombing cessation, it would clearly demonstrate its unwillingness to act in good faith to seek a negotiated peace. Its position throughout the world would be severely damaged. In the US, the public would close ranks behind the administration and a resumption of the bombing program would meet with general understanding
If we are to pursue this course, we must be assured that the GVN is prepared to participate in an appropriate and productive manner. The GVN must field a delegation with authority to negotiate and comprised of individuals with whom we can work. The procedures to be followed within “our side” should be agreed, including among other things, the expectation that GVN and US representatives would engage separately in private meetings with the other side (with close consultation, of course).
We have discussed this idea in general terms with Under Secretary Katzenbach and Assistant Secretary Bundy. We recommend that Ambassador Vance, circumstances in Paris permitting, leave for Washington after the meeting of Wednesday, July 31, in order to provide some further thoughts and additional elaboration on the course of action outlined in Part II above.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, A/IM Files: Lot 93 D 82, HARVAN-(Incoming)-July 1968. Secret; Immediate; Nodis; Harvan; Plus. Received at 4:09 p.m. In a note transmitting a copy of the telegram to the President, July 29, 6:40 p.m., Bromley Smith wrote: “Ambassadors Harriman and Vance in the attached cable argue for a cessation of the bombing now based on certain assumptions. Secretary Rusk may raise this cable with you when he calls at 6:45 p.m. You may wish to consider the substance of the cable at tomorrow’s luncheon meeting.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Harvan Paris Todel—Paris Delto, IX—7/23–31/68) The notation “ps” on the covering note indicates that the President saw the telegram.