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81. Record of Meeting1

MEETING BETWEEN U THANT AND THE PRESIDENT

U Thant reported to the President that he had met with the French Ambassador in New York, Mr. Berard.2 He told U Thant the French Delegation had reported to Paris. U Thant asked for a statement in writing confirming this. The note received reported the French Delegation reports that North Vietnam considers “The appropriate time after the cessation of the bombing as meaning a time necessary to demonstrate that the cessation is effective.”

U Thant added that if the Republic of North Vietnam were to be officially notified of such a cessation of hostilities from the United States, then the talks could start immediately. U Thant reported that the impression he got in his talks in New Delhi and Paris are: They want to talk.3

U Thant met with the Hanoi representative on the 7th, Hanoi-Peking attacked him on the Peking radio on the 11th—calling him messenger boy of Washington, etc. Hanoi replied to him on the 13th. His interpretation was—in spite of Peking's attack on him, Hanoi disregarded this and sent a reply. U Thant said the point he wanted to make was in spite of Peking's attack on him, Hanoi always made it a [Page 231]point to answer his questions. He reported Hanoi has been saying if there is an unconditional cessation of bombing and other things, they will talk, “but, of course, they can't be trusted. Peking we never have trusted. Peking Radio has been broadcasting for about three years that we will solve the problem. That is Peking's position. So in spite of Peking's position, Hanoi has come up with this formulation. So this is another instance of Hanoi's independence of Peking. My conclusion is: Hanoi wants to be independent of Peking. Told Ambassador Stevenson also, long ago, my impression is Hanoi is more independent of Peking than either was ever independent of Moscow.”

U Thant expressed opinion we could get Hanoi on our side. Thought Hanoi could be weaned away from Peking, but would have been much easier two years ago. He expressed view that if bombing was stopped, Hanoi would talk. In the case of stopping the bombing, he did not consider the DMZ part of North Vietnam and it might be necessary to bomb to stop infiltration of troops. Suggested a message be sent to Hanoi that the President would test their sincerity by stopping the bombing an x number of days. Thought that would make them decide to talk. Test their sincerity, whether to discuss cease-fire, or de-escalation in the South, maintenance of proposed San Antonio Formula—although they don't accept the San Antonio Formula, at least up to now.

President asked how U Thant's suggestions differ in substance from the San Antonio Formula.4 President said: “I imagine what it would be, the discussions that the bombing would stop, that's one part of it. The discussions would start in a couple of days, that would be two. Three, they could be productive in that they would be on substantive matters and not vituperation and just harassment but they would involve the four points and our points.”

U Thant said yes. The President continued by saying:

“And finally, we would assume that they would want us to stay at the table and discuss these things in an atmosphere that would be productive [Page 232]so they wouldn't have a crash program or take advantage while we were talking to try to overrun us at the DMZ, or something like that.”

The President reported that he did not see much difference in what U Thant was saying and what was contained in the San Antonio Formula.

President: “The San Antonio Formula says there will be talks—and they will speak productively on the subjects and they don't have to agree to anything else. We assumed, we thought that if you take advantage of this, if you continue to infiltrate and you continue to supply to your troops and you continue to wage war, we understand that. We will continue to supply our troops. We expect that you will do that. But if you take advantage over and above by trying to have a crash program to overrun us, while we are trying to talk to you, if you're going to take our wives and our children out there and try to burn the house down while we are sitting here in the Cabinet Room talks, then we'll have to go out and turn the water on to keep the house from burning. The purpose of the talks is to get somewhere and we are not wanting to take advantage by bombing Hanoi and Haiphong and we don't want you to take advantage by increasing, etc. We can't expect you to let your men starve or run out of ammunition or not get food or something. But we do expect you to not line your trucks up bumper-to-bumper and 30,000 extra men to try to shove over while we are sitting down.

“Now it seems from what you say that there are three elements of our San Antonio Formula: One is we stop the bombing of North Vietnam. Okay. We could do that. Second, that the talks could start promptly—that's today. Three, they could be productive, fruitful, substantive talks. That's all that means, that they're expected to be settled. Then we say, we don't make a condition and we don't exact a promise from you. We warn you, or we notify you, or we think frankly, candidly that if while we were talking, a fire is started with our wife and children—. They say ‘We won't take any of it—the San Antonio Formula is out’, and they hit 44 cities.”

U Thant reported he felt they had changed their attitude. He reiterated he would try to test their sincerity by stopping the bombing.

President. “My experience has always been that these other pauses—that once we pause and they use them as they did for 37 days,5 then it takes days and days to get out of the pause and the folks really don't understand and then the good sincere people want to blame us for resuming and so forth, and our men out there feel like we had been [Page 233]duped and we've let them down by tying their hands while these folks come at them, hitting 44 cities at once and all that stuff.”

U Thant reported that was a factor for the President to decide but his feeling was it was worth testing.

President reported: “Now, we yearn for peace. We want self-determination in that area. We have no desire to stay there as a colonizer and occupier. We want to take the resources that we're spending in the war, as I said in Johns Hopkins, and spend in economic development and that not only includes South Vietnam. It includes that area in North Vietnam, just as we have in other areas where we have struggled to protect freedom in Europe, in Asia before, and we want to do that and anything that gives us any hope of the sincerity of the other side in permitting the people themselves to determine what kind of government they want, and for that reason, after Mr. Gromyko indicated to us, that if we could be specific on leaving there—we went to Manila and pointed out that if the infiltration would cease and violence would subside, then we could divert our attention to economic building of the area instead of destroying the area. We still feel that way, very strongly.

“So last week the message that we got from the leader of another country who had communicated our explanations in some detail of what we meant by ‘prompt’, what we meant by ‘productive’, what we meant by ‘taking advantage of’, we had done that before last summer—in August and September—and when we announced the San Antonio Formula. Then we repeated it again through another government and their answer there was the original position—they wouldn't accept the San Antonio Formula just as they didn't last summer and we felt they had not budged very much, if any, from the position they took all along, mainly, their four points.6 But we are anxious to have peace. We do want to go halfway to meet them. We are desirous of taking the resources we have to stop using them for destruction and try to use them for constructive purposes.”

The President told U Thant he welcomed and applauded his consistent attempts to try to bring us together.7

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Transcripts of Meetings in the Cabinet Room, 2/21/68. No classification marking. The meeting lasted from 11:08 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. (Ibid., President's Daily Diary)
  2. Armand Bérard, French Representative to the United Nations.
  3. French Foreign Ministry officials informed Bohlen that on January 30 the DRV had authorized its representatives in New Delhi to discuss with U Thant the issue of Vietnam. (Telegram 9857 from Paris, February 2; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET/RAMS) On February 16 the President discussed this upcoming meeting at a news conference, noting that “I have received a good many reports from folks who have visited other capitals.” See Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968–69, Book I, pp. 235–236. One such source was the Indian Government, representatives of which had met with their North Vietnamese counterparts both in Hanoi and in New Delhi. The Indian Government also concluded that North Vietnam was prepared to negotiate. (Telegram 115569 to New Delhi, February 15, and telegram 117317 to USUN, February 17; both National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S; and memorandum from Rostow to the President, February 29, 12:15 p.m.; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, March 19, 1970 Memorandum to the President—Decision to Halt the Bombing, 1968, III) The British Government also had transmitted to Washington word of U Thant's message from Hanoi. (Message from British Ambassador Patrick Dean to Rusk, February 13, in telegram 115376 to London and Moscow, February 14; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET)
  4. In a telephone conversation with Clifford on February 14, the President made the following comment on U Thant's latest peace initiative: “Now U Thant is screwing the thing up and just as much as he can. And he's their agent almost. And he's gone to Moscow and he didn't see anybody but some clerk. Then he dashed over and tried to put it to Wilson, and Wilson's no good, but he did at least tell us what's happening. Now he's going to run over and try to see DeGaulle. Then they're going to come in and demand that we stop bombing tomorrow.” He later added: “He's meeting in Paris today and he's got a new message now from North Vietnam—they've sent for him, and they're going to put the propaganda to us again. And it's going to be one of these ‘will’ is changed to ‘should’ and ‘should’ is changed to ‘would’ and they will meet now and not in 6 months but in 10 days. And they'll do nothing. But if we stop that bombing we've just sacrificed all of our men.” (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation Between Johnson and Clifford, February 14, 1968, 9:16 a.m., Tape F68.02, Side B, PNO 1–2; transcript prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume)
  5. Reference is to a temporary bombing halt that lasted from December 1965 to January 1966.
  6. The basic DRV position for the peaceful resolution of the conflict, known as the Four Points, was stated by Dong on April 8, 1965; see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1965, pp. 853–854.
  7. Rusk, Goldberg, Clifford, Katzenbach, Harriman, Bundy, and Sisco met with Thant and Ralphe Bunche, UN Under Secretary-General, at 1 p.m. that day. (Memorandum of conversation, February 21; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET) U Thant's report on his contacts with the North Vietnamese was disseminated in telegram 119559 to London, Saigon, Paris, and USUN, February 22. (Ibid.)