250. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • GVN: Ambassadors Lam, Diem, Phong, Bac and Minister An
  • US: Ambassador Vance, Messrs. Habib and Holbrooke

Ambassador Vance began the meeting with a complete summary of his meeting with Lau on December 10.2

Ambassador Lam interrupted only once, to ask if Lau had agreed to use the “Qui Vi” form of address.

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Vance said that they had not answered.

After his résumé, Vance said that he wanted to draw the GVN’s attention to the fact that at 9 p.m., December 10, the North Vietnamese has issued a statement about the Vance-Lau meeting, claiming credit for making new proposals and generally portraying themselves as seeking progress.

Vance said at this time the press play on procedures was running in their favor. Vance said he was disturbed with this and said that it was important for us to discuss how we should proceed, what alternate seating plans we could suggest which were consistent with the our side-your side formula and how to appear flexible and not be accused of being intransigent.

Lam said that he agreed that we should not lose the initiative to the Communists. The two-sides principle must be maintained. Lam then said that any arrangement for seating other than the already proposed one—two long tables facing each other—represented a basic change in the two-sides principle which would cause difficulty in Saigon and was therefore unacceptable.

Vance said that there were other seating arrangements which could preserve the two-sides principle.

Lam asked whether Hanoi had ever accepted the two-sides formula.

Vance said that they had not, nor had we ever accepted their characterization of the meetings as four party.

Lam said that the GVN’s presence in Paris was based on the declaration of the United States Government of November 26.3

Habib said that the November 26 declaration does not demand that the other side accept the two-sides formula.

Lam repeated that the GVN was in Paris on the basis of the November 26 statement and on the principle of two sides.

Vance said that US participation here was also based on the two-sides formula.

Lam said that Hanoi is trying to put into dispute the two-sides formula.

Vance agreed saying that Hanoi is trying to make it look like a four-party conference.

Lam said that he understood that after having accepted the two-sides formula, Hanoi’s propaganda machine was trying to make this into a four-party conference. He said this was not a question of propaganda but of principle.

(At this point there was considerable confusion as to what Lam had meant by the above remark. After some confused discussion, Phong interrupted.)

Phong said that the US and GVN delegations understood that:

The US and Hanoi never reached an agreement on the two-sides principle; and
There was a clear US-Hanoi understanding that the ambiguity in the two-sides formula was deliberate in order to allow a way out of procedural impasse for both sides.

Vance and Habib agreed with Phong’s remark.

Lam then said that the GVN has accepted the two-sides principle and all its consequences. If the other side doesn’t accept this principle, Lam did not see how we could go much further. As the US has explained it to the GVN, Lam said, the two-sides principle meant it could make its propaganda as it wishes.

Vance intended to say that was not correct; each side could organize as it wishes.

Lam repeated that if the other side did not accept the two-sides principle, he did not think we could go any further. He said that the GVN could accept the fact that the other side could make whatever propaganda it wishes on the two-sides formula and could organize itself as it wishes, [Page 744] but it is essential that the two-sides formula be accepted in principle by Hanoi first. Then, Lam said, we can discuss the shape of tables.

Vance said he did not understand what Lam meant.

Lam said that the US and the GVN had had discussions which had resulted in acceptance by the GVN of the two-sides formula. If the Communists would also accept the two-sides formula, the procedural matters could easily be decided.

Vance said that the two-sides formula was deliberately ambiguous and permitted each of the sides to regard the situation in a different way, thus allowing the discussions of peace to continue.

Vance said we would get lost in semantics and abstractions unless we concentrate on concrete matters and relate the our side-your side formula to specific issues. We now have a concrete problem on arrangements and we must concentrate on that.

Lam said that the GVN accepts the two-sides principle, even with its ambiguities; but the other side doesn’t accept it even with its ambiguities.

Bac repeated Lam’s views.

Bui Diem asked if we were proposing concessions on the question of seating.

Habib said that we were not talking of concessions but alternatives, which would be consistent with and preserve the principle of the two-sides formula.

Habib sketched alternative seating arrangements which he said were consistent with the two-sides principle: two semicircles; four tables, two facing two; a diamond broken in two places; and a round table.

Habib said that he wanted the GVN to consider all of these so that we could consider proposing alternate arrangements which were consistent with the formula. Habib pointed out that the North Vietnamese had already retreated from their opening position of a square table by the two proposals they had made yesterday.

Lam said that the two long table arrangement was not a starting position but rather their firm position. For the DRV, he said, a square table was only a starting point.

A discussion followed in which Vance and Habib pointed out again that there were other seating arrangements which were just as consistent with our side-your side as the two long table arrangement.

Lam finally said that he agreed with Vance that our alternatives were in a juridical sense consistent with our side-your side. But, he said, until now the two-sides formula has been reported to the Vietnamese people and to the Congress by President Thieu and Foreign Minister Thanh as manifested by the seating arrangement we have proposed, [Page 745] and this cannot be changed easily. Our starting position was that this was a three-sided conference on the basis of the November 26 US statement, the GVN was participating in these negotiations.

Lam said he was showing the position of his government clearly with these comments. He said he would report our conversation and discuss the matter further with us as soon as possible. (At first he did not specify whether he would report to Ky or to Saigon. However, he indicated later that Saigon would have to be consulted.)

Vance said that we must come to grips with this matter. Perhaps we can meet with Ky and resolve it.

Bac said that the GVN believed that the two long table arrangement had been accepted by both sides.

Vance said that if we were going to be so rigid, we could not get anywhere.

Lam said this was a delicate and sensitive public relations matter.

The GVN was not here to block progress, but they had to make their point of view understood. Lam said he would try to be in touch with us after referring the matter to his government.

Vance said we should plan to meet the morning of December 12 and it would be helpful if Ky were present.

Lam said he thought Ky would not want to meet in this large a group.

Vance asked if there were any other matters to discuss.

Bui Diem raised the question of the order of speaking.

Habib said that this point was clearly related to seating.

Phong said that he wished to draw attention to the fact that Ky had made a moderate and reasonable arrival speech and the GVN delegation has behaved correctly and properly since its arrival. The other side has not reciprocated. Phong asked us to tell the North Vietnamese that the GVN expects them to act correctly and properly.

Lam added that this should be not just in the meetings, but also in public, particularly at this time.

Bui Diem said that the GVN had come here seriously, but if Hanoi keeps up its dirty attacks, the GVN will have to warn them and to respond.

Vance said he would convey this message to Lau.

Habib said that Ky’s arrival statement had had a very good impact and cited the New York Times as an example.4

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Vance said that the Secretary of State had asked him to tell Ky that he had read Ky’s arrival statement and was pleased by its constructive tone.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, HARVAN Misc. & Memos, Vol. VIII. Secret; Nodis/HARVAN. Drafted by Holbrooke. The meeting was held at the GVN offices. The previous day, the U.S. delegation briefed the GVN delegation on the procedural arrangements agreed to by the DRV, as well as those still to be settled. (Memorandum of conversation, December 9; ibid.)
  2. The delegation transmitted the full report of this meeting in telegram 25136/Delto 1039 from Paris, December 10. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, A/IM Files: Lot 93 D 82, HARVAN-(Incoming)-December 1968)
  3. See Document 238 and footnote 4 thereto.
  4. Stories on Ky’s December 8 arrival were published in The New York Times on December 9, 1968; a related editorial appeared on December 10.