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

45163. For the President from Bunker. Herewith my seventy-fourth message.

Viet-Nam: Continuing Progress and Some Problems Ahead.

I reported in my last message on November 30th2 that, despite preoccupation with the problem of negotiations, the government and people of South Viet-Nam continue to make steady, indeed accelerating, progress in many ways. This has continued to be true.
The forming and dispatch of the delegation for Paris was a matter of great concern involving the necessity of obtaining Assembly approval and requiring a Supreme Court decision. Thieu handled this matter, I think, in an impressive fashion, displaying respect for the institutions set up by the Constitution, and at the same time seeing to it that they worked effectively. During this period, some impressive gains were scored in pacification while relentless military pressure was kept on the enemy. Both the gains and the pressures have continued.
Vietnamese leadership is, of course, well aware that success in the pacification and military sphere will have a direct effect on the negotiations. By extending territorial control and driving enemy forces across the border into Laos and Cambodia, the South Vietnamese greatly strengthen their position at Paris. This is obviously a strong incentive, and Thieu is pushing his people to get on with the war effort and pacification faster and with better effect than at any time since I arrived.
The current difficulties with Hanoi over procedural matters are part of the same problem we had to resolve when the GVN held back right after the bombing halt. It took several weeks of arduous, and patient, negotiations to persuade them to go, and in the course of those negotiations, the GVN made some points which in their view go to the very heart of the problem, especially that they must not be placed on the same footing as the National Liberation Front. We accepted these [Page 770] points, first in the statement of November 13 and later more formally in our statement of November 26.3 It was on this basis that the South Vietnamese delegation finally left here December 7.
The GVN regards these matters as of the utmost importance. They see the initial moves as critical, believing the enemy will conclude from them whether he can get us to make important concessions on matters of substance and whether he can divide the us and the GVN. As the North Viet-Nam analysts within the inter-agency planning group in Washington correctly observe (State 274223),4 “Hanoi will probably be rather sticky on procedural matters. To the North Vietnamese—as to the South Vietnamese, procedure is substance, because procedure can determine substance.” The South Vietnamese fear that we may be over eager to make concessions. The Clifford interview of December 15,5 in which the Secretary said that we need not work out common positions with our Vietnamese allies, that we could discuss military matters, including troop withdrawals, unilaterally with the North Vietnamese enemy, and hinted in fact that we had already done so, and deprecated the importance of the seating arrangement, has tended to confirm those suspicions in the minds of the Vietnamese.
I think we must face the fact that the GVN simply does not agree that the present situation requires us to act with undue haste. They consider that time is on our side, the war is going well (thanks to our help as well as to their increased efforts), they are getting stronger and the enemy is getting weaker. I think they are right in their assessment of the effect of premature concessions on the climate here in South Viet-Nam. If our side caves in during the first preliminary round, there could be a serious decline in morale here. People will judge the chances of freedom in South Viet-Nam, and the firmness of our commitment to that freedom, by how we handle ourselves—the US and the GVN together—during the opening phase of the talks.
The enemy said for years he would not negotiate while the bombing went on, then he did negotiate while the bombing went on, said we had to meet in Phnom Penh or Warsaw, and then he agreed to meet in Paris. He said he would not accept conditions in return for the bombing halt; finally he did accept conditions. He insisted on a secret joint minute, and abandoned that in the face of our firm rejection. He now says that he will not sit down unless the “four-sided” character of the negotiations is recognized. Since we are not going to recognize that, [Page 771] he will settle for less. With the Communists (indeed, in my experience, this is not confined to the Communists), fruitful negotiations are rarely advanced by being accommodating, especially at the beginning. In fact, I believe that by showing ourselves too eager for early results, we may make the achievement of a viable solution to the conflict more difficult and more time consuming in the end.

[Omitted here is Bunker’s report on political, military, and economic matters.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 9:10 a.m. Repeated to Paris for the Vietnam Mission. This telegram is printed in full in Pike, ed., The Bunker Papers, Vol. 3, pp. 629-635.
  2. See Document 242.
  3. See footnote 8, Document 217 and footnote 3, Document 236, respectively.
  4. Dated November 19. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, HARVAN Chronological, Vol. XXIV)
  5. See footnote 3, Document 258.