9. Editorial Note

The diplomatic exchange code-named Chlodnick between the United States and the Soviet Union involved the arrangement of a summit conference between President Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin to discuss arms control, the Middle East, and Vietnam. Discussions of the summit took place primarily in Washington. On the evening of September 9, 1968, Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin met with Walt Rostow at the latter’s home. The following discussion on Vietnam is excerpted from Rostow’s September 10 memorandum to the President and Secretary of State Rusk on his meeting with Dobrynin:

“5. Dobrynin then turned to Vietnam and talked at very great length, making, in the end, the following points:

“—He continued to regret that we had not responded more positively to Kosygin’s statement that ‘he and his colleagues had reason to believe, etc.’

“To the best of Dobrynin’s knowledge, this was a unique message to the United States. He had hoped that if we could not act immediately upon it we would come back with a proposition which ‘Kosygin and his colleagues’ might press on Hanoi.

“—He then raised the subject of the third offensive. With striking candor he said: ‘Now that the Democratic Convention is over, the offensive may subside.’ If there was a lull in the level of violence in South Vietnam, would we be willing to stop the bombing? He then introduced the familiar argument that we were ‘a great country dealing with a small country’ and we could afford to be generous. I said the question was not one of generosity, but of the lives of American soldiers and our allies. There is also the critical matter that if they were not prepared for reciprocity at this stage, I did not see how a stable peace could be negotiated for Southeast Asia. The negotiation of a peace would have to confront certain hard facts about the presence of North Vietnamese forces in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. If we evaded the question of reciprocity on the bombing, we might then be confronted with a similar stubbornness and unwillingness to face reality with respect to the GVN in Saigon; then, the question of North Vietnamese troop withdrawals from the South; etc. We did not see why, if they were serious, they would not settle down and make peace on the basis of hard realities.

“—This led to a very long series of statements on the minds of the men in Hanoi—and in Peking—as seen from Moscow. He began with the Chinese Communists. He said that in their dealings with Moscow, the Chinese Communists often took positions that made absolutely no [Page 24]sense to the Russian mind. For example, in a meeting with Soviet and other Communists, the Chinese Communists said bluntly they did not mind a nuclear war. This would wipe out most of the Soviet population and a high proportion of the Chinese population, but would leave them with two or three hundred million Chinese. (He reported that an Eastern European Communist leader spoke up and asked: ‘What about us?’) He said that while the men in Hanoi were not casual about nuclear war, they were filled with ideas which were foreign to Moscow and—no doubt—to us. They took enormous pride in their capacity to survive and persist in conducting the war against the world’s greatest power. They evoked memories of how they have survived for centuries against the Chinese; struggled successfully against the French; kept in the battle against the big American forces. They are very stubborn about their objectives: he cited their satisfaction and pride in forcing us to stop a part of the bombing. (At this point he came perilously close to suggesting that we should have used more power against them, but veered away quickly.)

“—On the other hand, he said that Hanoi had shared with Moscow some of the negotiating positions they would take after a bombing cessation. He could not reveal these to me. But he personally concluded that they would negotiate seriously.

“—In underlining the curious pride and mentality of the men in Hanoi he gave a long circumstantial account of how the Soviet Union was prepared to make available to them pilots for air defense. He said that the Soviet Union had a number of experienced pilots who were in retirement at an early age. Their pensions were greater than the salary of an Ambassador. Some Soviet military men were extremely anxious to get them into Hanoi so that they could acquire experience in combat with the Americans. The Americans were learning exactly what the capacity of their aircraft and their pilots was. The Soviet Union could only train their men under non-combat conditions. Therefore, the pressure to get Hanoi to accept Soviet pilots was considerable. But they flatly refused. He cited this, again, as an example of the extreme pride of a very small power in dealing with a major power.

“6. I told him that I had no position to report to him on a cessation of bombing other than that with which he was wholly familiar. We hoped that things would move forward in Paris. If they wish to negotiate with President Johnson, they had better get moving. I doubted that they would do any better in negotiations with President Johnson’s successor, whoever he might be. Moreover, they had better reckon that the South Vietnamese are as stubborn as the North Vietnamese. They will soon have a million men under arms of increasing competence and confidence.

“7. Dobrynin then suddenly asked: If there were a free election in the South, how do you think it would come out? I said that it was my [Page 25]private judgment that the hard core Communists could not attract as much as 10% of the South Vietnamese vote. On a Popular Front basis they might do better; but, for what it was worth, I did not believe that a Popular Front in South Vietnam would do as well as the French and Italian Communist parties in their elections. He asked: How would President Thieu fare in an election? I took him through the election statistics (which I shall send him), pointing out that between them, Thieu and Huong had gotten 45% of the vote. If you added in former General Don in the Senate, you were up to something like 56% of the vote. Except for Dzu, who was in effect a Popular Front candidate, the balance went to anti-Communist Nationalists. I concluded that the problem of the South Vietnamese in an election, in my judgment, was not with a vast pro-VC majority, but how to avoid running 10 Nationalist candidates, as they did last time. I concluded by saying that I could be wrong; and if the men in Hanoi believed in the popularity of their cause, let them adopt the test of a one-man, one-vote election. We were ready. He asked: Is Thieu ready? I said that it was my impression that he was ready. I cited the statement in the Honolulu Communiqué which he had volunteered despite the fact that he was under considerable political pressure at home at a time when a major attack on Saigon was expected.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Rostow Files, Chlodnick File)

The full text of this memorandum is printed in Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, volume XIV, Document 295.

On September 13 Dobrynin delivered orally a note from his government to Rostow addressing the convening of the proposed summit. The note reads in part:

“We are ready to exchange opinions on Vietnam with the understanding also of the fact that the Soviet Union cannot be a substitution on this question for the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. We think that such an exchange of opinions can be useful if to proceed from the fact that continuation of the war in Vietnam benefits nobody but those who would like to bring the United States and the Soviet Union into collision, and that the solution of the Vietnam problem can be found not on the battlefield. We did already express to President Johnson our conviction that the current meetings in Paris between representatives of the DRV and the United States give an opportunity to find a way out from the present situation. We continue to believe—and it is not without grounds—that if the United States completely stops bombings and other military actions against the DRV it could create a turning point at the meetings in Paris and would open perspectives for serious negotiations on political questions of a settlement.”

The full text of this note is ibid., Document 296.