214. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

42463. Subject: An interpretation of Hanoi’s future strategy.

It is important that Washington, Paris, and Saigon to try to arrive at a consensus of why Hanoi accepted our terms for the wider negotiations, since our strategy in the initial phases of the new talks will be affected by the assumptions we make on this score. This is the case whether the GVN joins us soon, as we hope, or whether we are forced in the end to begin the talks on our own. I therefore wish to initiate an exchange on this subject and advance the following thesis.
Hanoi was aware that the war had become very unpopular in the United States and that support has been eroding at a rapid rate. Hanoi perceived that neither the American people nor the Congress will support an indefinite continuation of the war without hope of a foreseeable end, and that 1969 would be the critical year for an American decision on the war. Hanoi was mindful that concern with domestic problems [Page 621] and disillusionment with foreign intervention are mounting rapidly in the United States. Hanoi saw certain parallels between the growing American frustration and disillusionment with the war and those which led the French Government to disengage in 1954.
Therefore the following questions require an answer:
Why then did Hanoi not persist in its policies in the expectation that the erosion of our commitment would continue to the point that we would throw in the towel?
Why did Hanoi accede to our terms and make its concessions precisely at the time it did?
I venture the following answers to these two related questions:
Hanoi assumed that if they could get the bombing stopped before our elections it would be difficult, while talks were still in progress, for the President to resume bombing before January 20, and it would be even more difficult for the next President to resume the bombing after a 2-1/2 month pause. If there is merit in this thought, then we can conclude from this that Hanoi will act with enough restraint during the next 2-1/2 months with respect to the DMZ and the cities to deny the President justification for resuming the bombing before January 20.
Hanoi also believed that the election of Mr. Nixon would on balance be less favorable to them than Vice President Humphrey’s election. They must have had a certain fear that Mr. Nixon, in an effort to end the war quickly, would authorize resumption of bombing, including possibly Hanoi and Haiphong, the closing of Haiphong, and even attacks on Lao and Cambodian sanctuaries. These fears—probably fanned by the Soviets—were a possible second reason which prompted them to meet our terms before the election. If, in fact, their plan was to try to defeat Mr. Nixon, then the plan miscarried by their waiting too long to accede to our terms.
But there were more basic and compelling considerations at work. Hanoi had to face the fact that the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong forces had taken enormous casualties in the three offensives of 1968. These defeats dashed hopes of a quick victory in 1968 based on a “general offensive” and a “general uprising,” that would produce the disintegration of the armed forces and the collapse of the Thieu government.
Another basic consideration which Hanoi had to confront was that the South Vietnamese Government, armed forces, and people emerged from the ordeal of 1968 clearly strengthened, more unified, and more self-confident than ever before. With each passing month Hanoi had to assess the telling impact of American military power, General Abrams’ new tactics, including the devastating tactical use of the B-52’s and air power to close traffic choke points into Laos, the [Page 622] growing strength of the South Vietnamese Government, increasing aggressiveness of the ARVN military and para-military units, and the formation of the popular civil defense forces. This was a formidable combination too strong for them to hope to overwhelm militarily. The heavy losses of VC cadre during 1968 added to Hanoi’s difficulties.
In the face of all this the NVA and VC leaders were encountering more and more discouragement and even signs of defeatism in their own ranks. There was evident danger of further deterioration on their side if they insisted on clinging to military (and quasi-conventional) strategy.
All this led to the conclusions, probably taken in September, that their only practical options were either to resort to the policy of protracted warfare or to shift their emphasis to the conference table or a combination of both in order to bargain for terms while VC strength in the countryside remained formidable and their structure of control is still virtually intact.
This brings me to their strategy in the coming talks. While it will call for a certain amount of fighting in the South, their main thrust will be to get substantive talks going quickly so that they can, very early in the game:
Put in a demand for an immediate cease-fire while at the same time exerting substantial, but shrewdly selective, military pressure;
Make such concessions as they have to make on their own withdrawal of forces so as to produce the earliest possible withdrawal of United States troops;
Offer tempting proposals for a coalition government, probably not with Thieu, Ky and Huong, but with almost anyone else they think we might accept.
The wide appeal and seeming logic of an immediate cease-fire coupled with an offer to withdraw their forces (already partially “out of country” in border and sanctuary areas) could be the two first main points of pressure on us. They know that these two offers (demands) will play upon the American public’s desire to end the casualties and get out. If Hanoi can extract our agreement for an early cease-fire under conditions somewhat favorable to the Viet Cong and tied to this agreement on a troop withdrawal, then this will obviously strengthen their hand in the bargaining over coalition.
I therefore foresee no long haggling by Hanoi in the negotiations over procedures, for their purpose will be to get to the substance of business as quickly as possible. The alacrity with which Lau dropped his demands for a joint secret minute, for the presence of the press and TV at the first meeting, and for transferring the meeting to the larger conference hall, all reinforce my hunch that they want to move with [Page 623] speed to the substantive talks. I predict that they will not haggle long on such questions as flags, name plates, the position of chairs around the table, etc.
The GVN’s refusal to enter the talks has given Hanoi a propaganda advantage which they will try to exploit as long as possible. They will make the most of this chance to sow suspicion and create division between us and the GVN. Hanoi will quickly sense that nothing suits their purpose better than to have the GVN boycott the talks indefinitely, forcing us to talk alone with them and the NLF. We may be sure that they are very conscious of the pressures on us to go ahead which will be coming soon from Congress and American opinion.
To negotiate without the GVN would be extremely difficult for us. Apart from the obvious complications in the negotiations themselves, it could touch off such confusion and demoralization in South Viet Nam as to endanger the stability of the government and the morale of the ARVN forces. Because of this Thieu simply cannot stand aside from the talks for very long. Moreover, if he should be so foolish as to delay unduly, he would find that, despite his November 2 address,2 so widely applauded at the time, pressures would build up to force him into the talks.
All this suggests to me that Thieu will have to move soon, but it may require that we take the few extra days or possibly a week or more, to bring him around. We have too much at stake and to lose by going it alone, and so has he. As for Hanoi, it can do little in these next few days except chafe and complain, protest and propagandize. If we assume as we do that Hanoi wants and needs this conference badly to save what it can from the wreckage of its 1968 strategies, then Hanoi has no choice except to wait.
The thesis of this telegram also suggests the relative unlikelihood that Hanoi will renege on its agreement with us or decisively provoke us into a resumption of bombing by seriously violating the DMZ or attacking the larger cities. Finally, it also suggests that once we and the Government of South Viet Nam move in concert into negotiations we will be in a strong position.
To fight while negotiating creates obvious and considerable problems and these cannot be minimized. During this period the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of American public opinion will be operative, and properly so. The enemy will probably attempt to maintain a level of “fighting” which will have optimum political impact (terrorism, assassination, continuing American casualties well publicized, etc.). At [Page 624] the same time they will offer, as noted elsewhere, superficially reasonable and tempting proposals during the negotiations. The “mix” will be designed to increase all pressures on us to settle at the table for a package favorable to the Communists. Although our emphasis in this message has been on the Communist desire to get into substantive talks, we believe that extensive preparations now underway in the enemy camp (as described in interrogations and captured documents) suggest the strong probability of considerable armed conflict in the days ahead.
Our own assessment, however, suggests, to repeat, that we could be in a relatively strong position at the table. Exactly how strong will depend on our ability to maintain our (and ARVN) troop morale, on our success against the Viet Cong local forces, guerrilla units and infrastructure during the coming months, and on our ability to exploit the pressures on the enemy for a rapid settlement while resisting (or at least containing) those working against us. We simply must not permit the enemy to believe through his reading of our public statements and overt or even diplomatic actions that our side is desperate for a settlement (or any part thereof, including the all important cease fire).
If the morale of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army has actually deteriorated to the extent we think, we should resist a cease fire until we have settled several crucial issues to our satisfaction: the future of the DMZ, the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces, not only from South Viet Nam but from Laos and Cambodia as well; and perhaps most important, the precise interplay between the exercise of government and Viet Cong jurisdiction in the countryside during the period of cease fire and prior to a final political settlement. Unless we obtain some satisfaction on these issues, any agreement will be a temporary truce to be upset by a pragmatic and ruthless enemy not long after our forces have departed these shores.
My final thought, already referred to above, is that while speed in getting the talks started is essential, we should give Thieu and his colleagues a reasonable time to let the message from the President-elect sink in, to consider our last proposal for a statement, and to reflect on Ambassador Diem’s reports of the strength of the US press, public and Congressional reaction and criticism from other countries. It seems to me that we can live a little while longer with American public frustrations over the GVN’s hesitations, now that talks are in prospect and there is a foreseeable end to the war. If necessary, we still have a few more cards we can play to bring them into the talks, for example a TCC meeting or a special envoy, before we lower the boom and go it alone, with all the complications that this implies.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, Memos to the President/Bombing Halt Decision, Vol. VI. Secret; Immediate; Nodis/HARVAN Double Plus. Repeated to Paris.
  2. See footnote 4, Document 178.