255. Memorandum Prepared by Ambassador at Large Harriman 1


In June while Cy Vance and I were both in Washington, the President received a message from Kosygin.2 It was shortly after Le Duc Tho’s stopover in Moscow en route Paris, in which the press had indicated he had had a talk with Kosygin. Kosygin’s message to the President stated, “I and my colleagues believe and with good reason …” and then continued to the effect that the DRV was prepared to negotiate seriously for a peaceful settlement, providing the bombing of North Viet-Nam stopped and no U.S. interest would be adversely affected.

Rusk called a meeting in his office which Clifford, Vance and I, Bill Bundy and Ben Read, as I recall it, attended. Clifford took the position that the President should take Kosygin at his word and state that he was [Page 755] prepared to stop all the bombing, providing the DRV did certain things, on the assumption that the Soviet Government was assuring him of the good faith of the DRV, etc. I supported Clifford, pointing out that I did not recall any Soviet leader taking such a direct position as “I and my colleagues have reason to believe”.

Rusk asked a few questions, but did not at that time oppose Clifford’s proposal.

We thereupon got into automobiles, drove to the White House to discuss the reply with the President.3

Rusk started in with a carefully worded analysis which cut the ground out from under Clifford’s proposal, and in fact took the position that of course we couldn’t take what Kosygin said seriously.

The President turned to me and I said that I believed the Secretary of Defense had an answer which I thought he ought to consider, that I was in support of that, and mentioned again these opening words of Kosygin were more definite than anything that I could recall. (Abe Fortas later had something to say, negatively.)

Clifford was then turned to and asked by the President for his proposal after a negative atmosphere had already been prepared. He did the best he could under the circumstances. Clifford made the point clearly, however, that if the President took Kosygin at his word he would have a chance to insist upon Soviet Government assurances.

The President turned over the reply to Fortas and Rusk to make. They brought back a negative reply, pretty much demanding action to be taken by the DRV along the standard lines.

The net effect of this was extremely hard line, turning Kosygin down, and Clifford and I both thought we lost an opportunity to get the Soviet Government on the hook in a way that would be most valuable in future negotiations.

What appalled me was that Rusk took this negative position without telling Clifford that he was going to do it, and without indicating to the President that Clifford had a different point of view. He clearly attempted to cut the ground out from under Clifford before he had a chance to present his position. I have never participated in any discussion in the White House where there was such a clear attempt made on the part of one member of the President’s Cabinet to destroy the position of another before the second man had a chance to present it.

This, I believe, exposed to me the kind of attitude that Rusk took with McNamara and his proposals, and evidently was the manner in [Page 756] which he had reduced Clifford’s credibility with the President since Clifford took over the Defense Department.

I went back with Rusk to the Department and he said, “The trouble with Clark is he has lost his nerve since he has been over in the Pentagon.” I replied that I didn’t agree, that I thought an opportunity had been lost, and that ended the conversation. I feel Dean must have used this attack on Clark’s character with the President. To me, this kind of attack on a colleague is contemptible.

This was the first opportunity since our discussion in Paris started in May, of stopping the bombing under conditions which, in my judgment, would have placed the President in a strong position to obtain a reasonable settlement.

The second opportunity came in July.

After we had made a major issue of indiscriminate shelling of Saigon, and stirred up world public opinion (editorials in Indian newspapers, Manchester Guardian, Norwegian, Mexican newspapers, as well as the first critical statement about Hanoi by U Thant), the DRV stopped the shelling on June 18th.

In July, the general tempo of all military action was down and there was public discussion of whether this lull was the kind of indication of restraint that the President had asked for in his March 31 statement. After full consultation here in Paris and discussions with both Bill Bundy and Katzenbach, who happened to be here over the weekend, Vance and I sent a telegram recommending to the President that we stop the bombing on the assumption that this lull was the restraint asked for.4 It was a well thought out detailed plan, and we strongly recommended it. I have been told that it arrived in Washington the same day as the Times editorial making a similar suggestion. Later I found out that Hubert Humphrey had prepared a memorandum of his own position which included stopping the bombing.

The President went through the roof, and instructed the Secretary of State to hold a press conference on Monday, July 30.5 This was the hard line press conference that cut the ground out from all the work Vance and I had been doing in Paris since early May. It was interpreted by the DRV as a change in position. In fact, Ha Van Lau asked Vance, since the Secretary of State’s statements were at variance with what Vance and I had been talking about, whether we in fact did talk for the President. (Vance had been carrying on private discussions with Ha Van Lau for some weeks.)

[Page 757]

The next backward step was the President’s trip to Honolulu to meet President Thieu.6 As Clifford was in South Viet-Nam at the time, he joined the party from there. I urged that Vance return to Washington to discuss the questions and explain our position. He got nowhere. I had urged Vance to insist that he go to Honolulu, but since he was not invited, did not do so.

There was no reason for the Honolulu Conference. Out of it came a hard line communiqué which didn’t advance anything and set us back again in Paris. Even Bunker reported one of the leading Saigon politicians as saying, “The communiqué sounds too good to be true.” What motivated the President, or who put in the oar to encourage it, I don’t know, presumably Rusk and Rostow and Fortas.

There is no doubt in my mind that if the President had taken this opportunity to stop the bombing about three weeks before the Democratic Convention, the Democrats would have been united, without serious divisions, Humphrey would have been nominated without conflict over the plank on Viet-Nam, and as the polls had been showing in June and July, would have started a campaign in which he would have been elected comfortably.

I can see no benefit from the President’s actions or the manner in which he behaved. Even if the President had not stopped the bombing but avoided going to Honolulu, and Rusk had not had his unnecessary press conference, things would obviously have been better. I do not know the details of the attempt to get a compromise plank on Viet-Nam at the Convention, but Freeman told me that Humphrey went to the Convention with a compromise initialed DR (Dean Rusk), which later President Johnson repudiated. He sent a message to Charles Murphy to insist on holding to the hard-line plank that was finally adopted by a 60-40 vote after the odd telegram from Abrams.7 This, of course, split the Party wide open and led to Humphrey’s nose dive in the polls.

I went home in early September for Mrs. Norton’s funeral, and took the occasion to go to Washington. I saw Clark Clifford first in order to get a feel of the way things stood. In that conversation I asked him bluntly whether he felt the President wished to see Humphrey defeated. He waited for a moment and then replied, “If you agree it is just between you and me, I believe you’re right: the President wants to see him defeated.” I asked this question of several others, including Hale Boggs. Hale said he made a great issue with the President and feels he had some influence in getting the President to change his position.

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There is no doubt in the very last period of the campaign he did take his coat off and did contribute to the Humphrey comeback. It was too late. He had done a number of things which seemed obviously damaging; i.e., when Humphrey suggested the possibility that troops might be brought home, a few, even before the end of the year, he took the occasion to make a speech at one of the veterans organizations, denying any possibility of troop withdrawals this year (or near future).

For some reason, Humphrey seemed to be baffled and unsure of himself. Some of his friends say he found someone blocking him in every direction. The President in one direction; McCarthy in another. John Bailey, and Mayor Daley, and others appeared to be opposing any position that he might take. As a result, the campaign got off to an impossible start with no money, largely because of the disastrously negative polls.

George Ball came to Paris on September 20 and told me he was considering seriously resigning, and supporting H.H.H. I applauded his doing it, but we agreed that I should not do so, as there was always a chance we might work something out here which would have an effect on the election. Something happened with Ball’s joining campaign which changed the tide favorably. The Salt Lake speech was well received.8 George took his coat off in New York and began to get some money and a new direction appeared in the campaign. I was told that he was the one man around Humphrey that took a definite position. Others were advising him in one conflicting direction or another. Humphrey had been confused by conflicting advice. Whatever the reason, the campaign did take on a new impetus.

In the meantime, we were pressing our discussions privately with the North Vietnamese in Paris, and finally got to a point on October 18 when we had achieved the points that Washington had instructed us to take. The only remaining question was the date for the serious talks. We reported that the DRV said the NLF representatives couldn’t get here as quickly as we had asked, but that it would be as soon as possible— “the sooner the better.” They explained it would take some time for the NLF Delegation to travel to Paris. We argued that they could have one of their representatives already in Europe represent them for the first ceremonial meeting, and the South Vietnamese would be represented probably only by their observer, Ambassador Lam, so that neither side would be at a disadvantage. The North Vietnamese refused, saying they had no authority. Vance and I recommended that this reply be accepted, namely, as soon as possible, the sooner the better.9 We got a telegram [Page 759] back which arrived early next morning, instructing us to tell the North Vietnamese that we insisted on holding the meeting within 24 hours after the bombing stopped.10 We had no alternative but to go to the meeting and did propose it. It was of course rejected, and we continued to work between then and October 29, when it was finally agreed that if the President announced the stopping of the bombing that night, the other side would meet November 2. The Russians played a major role in getting some of the minor points cleared away. Much to our surprise, Thieu then ran out. The facts stated by Clark Clifford in his press conference of November 12 (attached)11 in answer to questions, give an account which we here agreed was accurate. Of course, much of this was between Washington and Saigon, and how much of the blame is due to Bunker’s mishandling or Thieu’s double-crossing, we cannot tell.12

In the early period, October 18, Bunker had supported the President’s position that the meeting had to take place the next day.13 What motivated Bunker in making this recommendation, unless he was sure that Thieu agreed, I cannot say. When Bunker, after October 29, asked three times for an extension in time in order to get Thieu aboard, the first two were granted, the third was not. Vance and I had made the point the President had taken a commitment on October 29 to stop the bombing, and that commitment should be honored. Clark Clifford’s press conference points that out. In any event, on October 31 the President did order the cessation of the bombing, and it had a noticeable effect in the U.S. even though Thieu was balking. I have no idea how much of an effect it had on the voter reaction. Some people say, little. I do know that strange Democratic Senatorial candidate (Paul O’Dwyer) finally came out in support of Humphrey after this event, which may have had some influence to unite the Democrats in New York.

Senator Percy told me when he came to Paris that the floor was falling out of Nixon’s campaign. Two or three days more, and it would have been finished. He based this on his experience in Michigan, where he had been told to go to stem the tide, and he had been told nothing could be done.

For several years, I have taken the position that Viet-Nam was important in U.S. policy, but that other things were more important. [Page 760] When asked what was more important, I always gave as my first point, not permitting it to elect Nixon as President. There is no doubt that the manner in which Viet-Nam was handled, with Rusk’s and Rostow’s advice or urging, elected Nixon. Of course, I had a number of other subjects which I thought were also more important. One was that Viet-Nam was not worth the deep division that it was causing among the American people. Second, it was developing an attitude of isolationism which would cripple us in dealing with future world problems in other areas, and then I felt that it was diverting our attention from other issues in other areas which were being neglected. Fundamentally, I felt the loss of American prestige was perhaps the most important. Before Viet-Nam, the U.S. was the standard bearer of moral principle in world affairs. This was being greatly shattered by Viet-Nam because of the people’s misunderstanding of the issues, or perhaps the arrogant manner in which we were going it alone. I want to add that I feel strongly it is essential we recognize the sensibility of non-communist Asia, and that a settlement of Viet-Nam should be of such a nature that it would not destroy the confidence of other Asian countries in the U.S. But I did not feel this included a commitment to Thieu and Ky. We have achieved that objective which led the President to send American troops into Viet-Nam: namely, prevented the North Vietnamese from taking over the South by force. The President’s second objective—that the people of South Viet-Nam be able to decide their own future on the basis of one man, one vote, is the political objective. This does not include the present position of Bunker and others that we must support the present Constitution, and the present elected officials. The present Constitution is in violation of the President’s one man, one vote principle, as Article IV does not permit communist members or communist sympathizers to vote. In addition, the election laws are untenable. Anyone who has ever done anything to help the communists is excluded from running for public office. Hardly anybody could qualify under such a definition if reviewed by an unfriendly committee—McCarthyism at its worst.

In any event, Thieu/Ky were elected by 34% of the people living in the part of the country secure enough to participate in the election.14 Komer figures this at 67%. Two-thirds of 34 is less than 23% of the people. For us to try to maintain that these officials are the free choice of the South Vietnamese people cannot be maintained. A new election must be held under appropriate conditions. The NLF must be compelled to renounce the use of terror and the election should be voided unless this is strictly adhered to.

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All of these matters will be dealt with by Nixon, as it is too late for us to make any real progress. Based on our experience with the North Vietnamese in not having kept the Laos Agreement for one day, it seems obvious that the U.S. must come to an agreement with Hanoi to “leave its neighbors alone.” (This I have said publicly.) This agreement can only be reached with Moscow’s help and can be based on Hanoi’s desire to be independent of Peking’s domination, as well as interest in establishing friendly relations with U.S. which would give it access to American and other Western technology and equipment. In other words, it must be an agreement which is in the interests of Hanoi to keep. I am satisfied from my talks with Kosygin and other developments, that the Soviet Union wants a Southeast Asia non-aligned to check China’s advance to the South. This is the same position the Soviet Union is taking in the subcontinent (India/Pakistan), and there is no reason to believe that for a number of years they would not have the same attitude towards Southeast Asia.

To me, the great tragedy of President Johnson is that he had a superlative record which out-achieved Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy put together, on domestic issues, civil rights, education, medical care, poverty, cities, etc., etc., issues which were never hit squarely before. He said they must be achieved now. However, he got bogged down and was sold the idea that it was his duty to fight Viet-Nam through. I think one of the historians in Columbia wrote him that he was like Lincoln, and urged him to have courage and faith. Abe Fortas took the same position. As far as I know, except for Rusk, not many, if any, in the State Department did. Ball and Katzenbach urged a Viet-Nam settlement. So did both McNamara and Clifford.

To me the tragedy was that a man who had little knowledge of international affairs should have been induced to become so deeply involved.

The basic error of Viet-Nam started with not taking Roosevelt’s advice, in permitting the French to return to Viet-Nam, but the most appalling mistake was Dulles taking on the French responsibility in the southern half of Viet-Nam, which everyone knew was politically unstable. There was no real chance of maintaining it as an independent country without strong military assistance from the outside. Just where we made our basic mistakes, history can decide.

I have stuck with the Administration, hoping that since the President had given me the job of peace, I could bring about negotiations which would end the war. Unfortunately, it came too late to help Humphrey, but let us hope Nixon will find a way to negotiate a reasonable settlement. I certainly want to do all I can as a private citizen to help, if his policy indicates a sincere effort to arrive at such a solution. [Page 762] President Johnson has given him the start through initiating these negotiations in Paris.15

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Special Files, Public Service, Kennedy-Johnson, Trips & Missions, Paris Peace Talks, 1968-69, Chronological File, Dec. 1968-Jan. 1969. Absolutely Personal.
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. VI, Document 262.
  3. See ibid., Document 265.
  4. See ibid., Documents 169 and 312.
  5. See ibid., footnote 2, Document 315.
  6. See ibid., Document 302.
  7. See ibid., Documents 339 and 337.
  8. See Document 40.
  9. See Document 84.
  10. Telegram 258650 to Paris, October 19. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, A/IM Files:Lot 93 D 82, HARVAN-(Outgoing)-October 1968)
  11. Not attached; see Document 213.
  12. Inserted here is the following notation in Harriman’s handwriting: “Note—Nov. 12, 1969—Bunker sent a telegram which I did not see to the effect that Thieu had reneged & could not be trusted again. WAH
  13. See Document 87.
  14. The election was held in September 1967.
  15. In a personal memorandum assessing military and political objectives in the Paris talks, January 7, Harriman described two factors that would allow for an agreement to be achieved with the DRV: the nationalistic desire of the North Vietnamese to remain independent of outside domination by other Communist powers and the interest of the Soviet Union in a strong Vietnam as a counter to Chinese expansionism. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Special Files, Public Service, Kennedy-Johnson, Trips & Missions, Paris Peace Talks, 1968-69, Chronological File, Dec. 1968-Jan. 1969)