218. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • Viet-Nam—Attacks from Demilitarized Zone and Firing on Reconnaissance Planes

PARTICIPANTS

  • Ambassador Dobrynin, Embassy of the USSR
  • The Acting Secretary
  • Mr. Bohlen
  • Mr. Dubs

Attacks from Demilitarized Zone by North Vietnamese—Ambassador Dobrynin was called in at the Acting Secretary’s initiative to discuss matters of serious concern to the United States regarding developments in Viet-Nam. Mr. Katzenbach said that the first item he wanted to mention [Page 632]was that a series—but not large—of attacks, primarily artillery, had taken place from the DMZ.2 Mr. Katzenbach said he could not overemphasize the importance the US attaches to the demilitarization of the DMZ. When such attacks take place it becomes serious, both in terms of maintaining the present situation and moving forward in the Paris talks. There should be no misunderstanding on this score on the part of the North Vietnamese. Mr. Vance has made this perfectly clear in Paris.

Mr. Katzenbach handed Ambassador Dobrynin a paper (Tab A)3 detailing incidents initiated from within the DMZ. Mr. Katzenbach said that the paper and attached map pinpoint locations from which attacks have originated. These attacks have often come from the southern half of the DMZ. Surely the Soviet Union and the North Vietnamese must recognize the seriousness with which the US views these attacks.

Ambassador Dobrynin asked whether this subject had been discussed with the North Vietnamese. Mr. Katzenbach noted that the incidents were discussed yesterday (November 12) afternoon or evening.4 The North Vietnamese, however, were not given a map detailing the coordinates from which the attacks had been launched. The map was now being handed to Ambassador Dobrynin in order to underline precisely where they had originated.

North Vietnamese Attacks on US Reconnaissance Planes—The Acting Secretary pointed out that US reconnaissance flights below the 19th Parallel have been shot at by the North Vietnamese. This has happened despite the fact that it had been made quite clear that we intended to continue these flights until such time as progress in the talks could suggest another solution. The North Vietnamese knew of our intentions, since we had made it clear that we would only cease the bombing and all armed attacks. Fortunately, so far, nobody has been hit. We cannot, however, rely upon such continuing good fortune in the future. If the situation continues, it will create a problem for the President in maintaining the present situation and the hope for serious talks. If reconnaissance flights continue to be fired upon, it is inevitable that the fire will be returned. Eventually, we would be back where we started from. [Page 633]This point has also been made with the North Vietnamese. The Acting Secretary then handed Ambassador Dobrynin a statement and map showing from where unarmed aircraft were fired upon (Tab B).5

Ambassador Dobrynin said that it was his personal impression that firing on reconnaissance aircraft was not explicitly discussed from the North Vietnamese.

The Acting Secretary pointed out that the aircraft involved were not making armed attacks. If firing continues, the Acting Secretary added, moving forward with the talks will be seriously jeopardized. If the North Vietnamese do not recognize this, they had better be told.

Ambassador Dobrynin said that it was his personal impression that the US was now placing a new demand, ex post facto, on the North Vietnamese. It was his impression, too, that this point had not been raised before in Paris. He recognized, however, that this could be a matter of interpretation.

The Acting Secretary said that if somebody shoots at you there is a good possibility that the fire will be returned. He did not want to see this happen. Certain points had been made by the US in discussions with the North Vietnamese. While these points did not constitute agreements, they were surely understood by the North Vietnamese. We simply Don’t know what their difficulty is in being photographed. All that we know is that if attacks against reconnaissance flights continue this is likely to lead to retaliatory action. US unarmed reconnaissance flights are not attacking anyone in Viet-Nam, and if a plane is shot down it will be difficult to maintain the present cessation of bombing. The US is the only side which has done anything, i.e., we have stopped the bombing. The North Vietnamese for their part are now violating the DMZ and firing upon US reconnaissance planes. The seriousness with which the US would view the loss of an unarmed plane cannot be overemphasized. We assume that the Soviet Union wants serious talks to take place.

Ambassador Dobrynin said that it was not quite clear to the USSR what was going on at the present time. After all the difficult arrangements, the US side does not appear able to come to the conference table. He noticed on the ticker that certain arguments surrounding the situation were now being made public and he did not believe this could be helpful.

The Acting Secretary said that interpretative statements by Hanoi as to what was agreed upon are causing the problems. Statements coming from Hanoi have made it more difficult for everybody. US statements regarding the situation have been scrupulously accurate; Hanoi’s have not been.

[Page 634]

Mr. Katzenbach said he hoped Ambassador Dobrynin’s views regarding the unwisdom of public statements would also be expressed to Hanoi. He reminded Ambassador Dobrynin that we have stopped the bombing and that we would like to get on with the talks. He urged the Ambassador to tell Hanoi that their statements have not been helpful.6

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 27-14 VIET. Secret; Nodis/HARVAN Double Plus. Drafted by Adolph Dubs, Acting Country Director for the Soviet Union in the Bureau of European Affairs. The Department transmitted a synopsis of the conversation to Rusk, who was attending the NATO Ministerial meeting in Brussels November 12-16, in telegram 271357 to Brussels, November 14. (Ibid., A/IM Files: Lot 93 D 82, HARVAN-(Outgoing)-November 1968)
  2. Numerous incidents of shelling from NVA positions in the DMZ into South Vietnam occurred during November 9-13. On November 13 the Department released a statement characterizing the attacks as evidence that the DRV was not living up to the terms of the October understanding. See The New York Times, November 14, 1968.
  3. Attached but not printed.
  4. In telegram 23712 from Paris, November 12, the delegation summarized that day’s meeting with their North Vietnamese counterparts. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, A/IM Files: Lot 93 D 82, HARVAN-(Incoming)-November 1968) In telegram 23790 from Paris, November 13, the delegation reported on a discussion between Harriman and Oberemko regarding the shelling incidents and reconnaissance flights over North Vietnam. (Ibid.)
  5. Attached but not printed.
  6. Rostow met with Dobrynin the next day and summarized the meeting in a memorandum to the President, November 14, 3:30 p.m.: “With respect to Vietnam, he was primarily interested in knowing how we were getting on in Saigon. I explained some of Saigon’s difficulties, emphasizing the role of Hanoi, VC, and Paris propaganda. I hit him hard on the DMZ and firing upon our reconnaissance planes. I told him I was temporarily optimistic about getting the GVN to Paris, but could give him no time. He said he hoped it could be soon. We were losing momentum. He expressed the hope that when they got to Paris they would be able to organize private talks in various pairings. With respect to Saigon and the NLF, he said that they would not come hat in hand to Thieu begging for forgiveness but would negotiate hard on the basis of the population and territory they held, plus their program for the future of the country. I said the critical matter, in my view, for Saigon and the NLF was to get off together up a back street in Paris and talk about the substance of the matter rather than jockeying publicly for face and position. He agreed. His final remark of the lunch was as follows: ‘Off the record, I wish to tell you that we have had as much trouble with Hanoi as you are having with Saigon. The only difference is that your troubles take place in public.’” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Walt Rostow Files, Chlodnick File)