208. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State 1

42368. 1. I saw Pres Thieu at 1100 am Nov 9 and gave him the President’s message contained in State 269234.2 Thieu was in a rather subdued frame of mind and in answer to my direct question whether he wished to work with us on a proper and confidential basis in the future, gave an unqualified yes. He was very interested in exploring the idea of a joint statement, and in response to my strong urgings that he send a delegation to Paris, he asked how he could get into a dialogue with Hanoi “discreetly.” Further exploration of this question resulted in his remark that he would like to consider a way in which to have “discreet preliminary talks” on the modalities with the US, the GVN, Hanoi “and possibly the NLF.” This represents at least a modicum of progress.

2. I began the conversation by saying I had hoped to see Thieu two days ago because I had wanted to have an opportunity to talk with him about finding a way out of his dilemma. I had had in mind that he might issue some statement to which we could agree, or alternatively that we might work out a joint statement which would make clear our position on the various matters that we had discussed earlier such as the our side/your side formula, how they and we would treat the NLF together and separately, our attitude toward coalition, making clear [Page 602]once more that we strongly reject the idea of imposing any form of government on South Vietnam. I said I and everyone in Washington had been very surprised that he had made a public statement on the negotiations without any previous consultation with us. I had a personal message from Pres Johnson for him on the subject.

3. Thereupon I spoke explicitly and at great length along the precise lines of State 269234. Thieu took notes and heard me through without interruption.

4. He then said he had never expected us to agree with his proposal. In fact, he had thought we would reject it and that we could then get together and find “a middle way.” He fully realized it would be very difficult for us to accept the position he had publicly expressed yesterday.3 I replied that it seemed to me that a public disagreement between us would only result in eroding support for him when he had to recede from his position, and it especially had the effect of eroding support for the war and for the GVN in the US. I said it was very unfortunate that we had to try to have negotiations in public, which is never a satisfactory way of conducting diplomatic business. Thieu asked, rather contritely, whether we couldn’t discuss matters, and I replied of course, this was one reason why I was here. I wanted to find out whether he was prepared from now on to discuss these matters with us on a confidential basis. I said we needed a specific answer to that question. I said Pres Johnson wanted to know on what basis you propose to deal with US in the future.

5. Thieu said he wanted to make clear, in response to the remark about the US and the NLF being put in the same position (para 2D reftel), that he obviously never intended that we should have a position comparable to that of the NLF. I said this was what his formula seemed to imply and that it would only serve to dignify the NLF, as Pres Johnson had pointed out. Thieu said this had been furthest from his thoughts. I stated again that the US would speak for itself and would not delegate this responsibility to anyone else.

6. Thieu then said it seemed to him that the basic problem was whether Hanoi would continue to insist that the meetings in Paris would be on a “four delegation” basis. I said this was no problem at all since we had made it clear that Hanoi’s position would be countered by us in the strongest terms, jointly and separately. We had already rejected Hanoi’s claim that negotiations are on the basis of “four delegations.” I reminded [Page 603] Thieu that we had been prepared to make a joint statement about non-recognition of the NLF, signed by him and Pres Johnson in the text on which we had agreed on Oct 28,4 and I added that we were prepared to repeat our position whenever we thought necessary.

7. Thieu said he would like to work this problem out with us. The question that kept arising in his mind was whether substantive talks could be serious as long as Hanoi insisted on a separate position for the NLF and persists in propaganda to this effect. I replied that I saw no reason to fear Hanoi’s propaganda if the SVN was as strong as he professed it to be when he said SVN would fight on alone if they could not have the assistance of their allies; and that we certainly ought to be able to counter any Hanoi propaganda. I said the thing to do is to put them to the test by sending a delegation to Paris. Ever since Honolulu we had urged them to get in touch with the DRV. Hanoi had said they wanted to talk seriously. Pres Johnson had said that we expect productive, serious and intensive negotiations. The only way to find out whether the other side was willing to engage in such negotiations was to start talking with them. As Pres Johnson had said in the message that I had just delivered—Thieu had made his proposals, now it was for him to follow them up by sending a delegation to Paris.

8. I then gave Thieu an aide-mémoire containing the text of the memorandum given by Habib to Col An (Paris 23606),5 showing where we stood in the matter of procedures. I said this showed what we had been doing in Paris and made clear that, as we had told him here, if we Don’t agree to certain procedures they cannot be put into effect. I added that we visualized that the first meeting on the our side/your side basis would be a preliminary one to deal with matters of procedure.

9. It was at this point that Thieu asked how he could get into such discussions “discreetly,” and wanted to know whether the GVN could get into the private talks between Vance and Lau. I said Thieu should understand that if the GVN attended these talks, Lau would bring along someone from the NLF. Thieu tried to say that if Hanoi continued to insist that there were two delegations on their side, this would show they weren’t serious. I reminded him that we had always assumed that the other side would make all kinds of propaganda. The GVN could reject such claims, and so would we, and the world would know that we had rejected them. Thieu then again said he would like to explore the possibility of participating “discreetly” in the preliminary talks. As he put it, there were two possibilities. One was for them to talk with us [Page 604]and agree on procedures and for us to talk with the DRV; the other to talk with the US, GVN, Hanoi, “and possibly the NLF.”

10. I said I wanted to come back to the fundamental question of how we were going to do business in the future, since I needed to give a clear reply to Pres Johnson. Did Thieu intend to work with us on a confidential basis as before? Thieu said, “Yes, I want to continue on that basis.” I thereupon turned to the idea of a statement that we might work out together, and said we would be willing to cover all the points that were giving the GVN trouble, including a statement about the agreement reached in Paris and how we would propose to treat the NLF, our rejection of coalition, etc. Thieu remarked that nobody was concerned about the coalition idea anymore. I said we had heard statements by his people, and the very fact that he had referred to it in his Nov 2 declaration6 seemed to show that this fear was still in his mind. Thieu protested that he trusted us completely. I said some of his people apparently didn’t, and that I found this incomprehensible in view of the statements we had made time and again.

11. I said we would consult Washington about a statement and expected to come up with some suggestions soon. Thieu seized on this with apparent relief and encouraged me to go ahead and try to have a text and said he would like to meet as soon as we were ready. He said he also wanted to have our ideas on how he might participate in the preliminary talks.

12. I then discussed with Thieu briefly the outcome of our elections, putting heavy emphasis on Nixon’s complete endorsement (Nov 3) of Pres Johnson’s policy with respect to negotiations.7 Finally, I reminded Thieu again of what I had told him in all frankness before the bombing halt announcement, that we would make every effort to go forward together with the GVN, but that if we couldn’t move with reasonable promptness we would have to go ahead alone. I said I wanted to be entirely frank with him, not in an unfriendly way, but I would not be performing my function for either side properly if out of politeness I obscured this point: the temper of the American people is such, I said, that we cannot wait very much longer for a GVN delegation to appear in Paris. I said that I thought this was perhaps the most important point in Pres Johnson’s message, and he should be absolutely clear about it.

13. Comment: It seems clear to me that Thieu wants to find a way out of the situation in which he finds himself, and that he views the statement he made yesterday as an initial move. He has obviously [Page 605]talked too much and he has taken positions which have threatened to paint him into a corner. In the process, he has gained wider support and more popularity than he has ever enjoyed. He may also feel that when he gets into negotiations he will have gained some advantage vis-à-vis the DRV’s persistent claim that his regime is a puppet of the US. But if now he can find some formula, and if we can help him to find it, that will enable him to move to Paris and at the same time save face, I feel sure he would welcome it. I think it can be done, but that it will take a little time and that we shall have to move with “deliberate speed.”8

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Memos to the President/Bombing Halt Decision, Vol. V. Secret; Immediate; Nodis/HARVAN Double Plus. Received at 8:05 a.m. Repeated to Paris for Harriman and Vance.
  2. Document 206.
  3. On November 8 Thieu proposed that his government’s boycott of the Paris talks would end if the parties agreed that the GVN would head a joint U.S.-South Vietnamese delegation and the DRV would take the lead over the NLF. See Keesing’s Contemporary Archives, September 6-13, 1969.
  4. See Document 128.
  5. Dated November 8. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, HARVAN/Double Plus, Vol. VI)
  6. See footnote 4, Document 178.
  7. On November 3 Nixon pledged his support for Johnson’s peace effort and suggested that he would travel to either Saigon or Paris to get the talks moving forward. See The New York Times, November 4, 1968.
  8. Bunker reported in telegram 42376 from Saigon, November 10, that, in an effort to present such a face-saving solution, he had submitted to Thieu two different proposed statements: one to be issued by the United States and one by the GVN, which were designed to resolve any outstanding differences. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, A/IM Files: Lot 93 D 82, HARVAN-(Incoming)-November 1968) The statements included the text of one transmitted by the Department in telegram 269936 to Saigon, repeated to Paris, November 10. (Ibid.)