106. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • Secretary’s Discussion of the Situation in Viet-Nam with the Italian Ambassador
[Page 219]

PARTICIPANTS

  • The Secretary
  • Ambassador Sergio Fenoaltea, Italian Embassy
  • Mr. Rinaldo Petrignani, Counselor, Italian Embassy
  • Mr. David H. McKillop, Director, WE

Italian Request for a Review of the Situation—Calling under instructions, he said, of Prime Minister Moro, the Ambassador referred to Moro’s statements (before the publication of our White Paper) supporting the American position on Viet-Nam.2 The Secretary expressed warm appreciation for the helpful statements that the Prime Minister had made despite his political problems.

Noting this appreciation, the Ambassador stated that Moro had courageously pointed to Hanoi as the root of the trouble in Viet-Nam. By its military action against South Viet-Nam through infiltration, the U.S. had been forced to reply acting with and on behalf of Saigon. The Ambassador added that Moro is mindful of the potential danger of the situation and has welcomed U.S. assurances that we do not wish to see the conflict spread. Italy has not taken any initiative in trying to bring about a settlement of the conflict but is not indifferent to the problem and stands ready to cooperate if the occasion to be helpful should arise.

In light of the foregoing, the Prime Minister had requested the Ambassador to obtain our latest views on the situation in Viet-Nam, including an evaluation of the various political initiatives that have recently been taken, notably by the British and French, whose views, however, seemed to differ somewhat. The Ambassador hoped a common approach to the problem consistent with Allied solidarity can be worked out. He thought a NATO review of the situation might be helpful, in connection with which he noted with satisfaction Ambassador Unger’s recent briefing in NATO.

The Secretary then reviewed our position on Viet-Nam along the lines of his news conference of February 25.3 He said that his opening statements in particular expressed clearly what the crux of our policy on Viet-Nam is and hoped that the Italian Government had been furnished with a text. The Ambassador replied he had sent copies of the entire text. As he had stressed at his news conference, the Secretary said that the missing piece in a solution of the Viet-Nam problem is [Page 220]Hanoi’s willingness to terminate its aggression in South Viet-Nam and leave its neighbor in peace.

Channels to Communists Open—The Secretary also wished to stress that channels to the Communists to discuss Viet-Nam are open—the French through Hanoi, the British as Co-Chairman with Soviets on Laos, ourselves with Peiping via Warsaw, etc. Thus, there is no lack of communications, but so far none of these contacts has revealed any evidence of Hanoi’s willingness to abandon its aggression by infiltration and terrorism against South Viet-Nam. Therefore, the question of negotiations takes on a special meaning. Negotiations leading to surrender in South Viet-Nam are, of course, out of the question. If formal negotiations were started and then failed, this failure could lead to a more serious situation and wider conflict, since a way out through negotiations would have already been exhausted. In this connection, the Secretary pointed out that previous successful negotiations with the Communists (end of Berlin blockade, Laos Agreement, Test Ban Treaty, etc.) have been preceded by private talks indicating a genuine willingness to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. There has been no such indication resulting from contacts with Hanoi. The French, for instance, have asked the North Vietnamese point blank if they were willing to stop their aggression in South Viet-Nam but have received no answer. Both French and British approaches have not reflected the possibility of success in terms acceptable to the Free World.

The United States has more reason than any other Western country for a successful resolution of the problem, but a peaceful solution is impossible if only one side wants it. As the President and Secretary have reiterated on innumerable occasions, we will withdraw our forces tomorrow if Hanoi will honestly guarantee to let South Viet-Nam alone. Meanwhile, as the President has affirmed, the United States is prepared to take all appropriate and adequate measures to stay on until Hanoi shows its readiness for peace.

Difference Between the Situations in Laos and Viet-Nam—The Secretary said there was an important difference between the situations in Laos and Viet-Nam from a United States viewpoint. The Laos Accords of 19624 had been preceded by a Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement that a solution of the Laotian problem should be reached on the basis of all countries undertaking to leave Laos alone to tend to its own affairs. This bilateral agreement with the Soviets is lacking with reference to Viet-Nam. While the United States participated in the negotiations leading to the Geneva Agreement on Laos, it did not do so in the case [Page 221]of the Geneva Agreement of 1954 on Viet-Nam,5 which the United States did not sign but accepted in a declaratory statement made by Ambassador Bedell Smith.

Points of Emphasis for Moro —The Secretary suggested that in his discussions of the Viet-Nam problem, the Prime Minister might helpfully underline what North Viet-Nam is doing to South Viet-Nam in the way of massive infiltration and terrorism and to express confidence that the United States will withdraw just as soon as North Viet-Nam stops its aggressive interference. The Ambassador stated Moro has been doing this and that our White Paper is helpful in this regard. The Secretary commented that our French friends, for instance, express concern about our air strikes but make no mention of North Vietnamese provocation in South Viet-Nam, which makes a troublesome imbalance. Even the Buddhists in South Viet-Nam, who are keen for a peaceful settlement, base it on demands that both the North Vietnamese and Americans go home, and have told us privately that they support our air strikes even if religious considerations prevent them from saying so in public.

Clarification of Point in U.S. White Paper—The Ambassador referred to a statement in our White Paper on Viet-Nam to the effect that the United States and South Viet-Nam would continue their military efforts until either North Viet-Nam ceased its aggression or other measures were taken to assure the peace and security of the area. The Ambassador wondered about the significance of the “or” clause. The Secretary explained that the “either” clause carried 99 percent of the weight of the sentence. The “or” clause had been added so as to leave a door technically open to the possibility of some sort of international action, possibly through the UN, SEATO, etc., but that possibility seemed small.

Significance of the Soviet Role—The Ambassador asked if the Secretary regarded the latest reaction from Moscow to our air strikes as more violent than the others, perhaps portending stiffer Soviet action? The Secretary replied that the Soviet record in South East Asia in the past has demonstrated a Soviet desire to avoid a confrontation in the area with the United States. The Sino-Soviet conflict, however, has become a complicating factor in solving problems with the Soviets in SEA since the Soviets are under pressure to take steps strong enough to match the Chinese Communist. Therefore, the possibility of substantial Soviet military aid to Hanoi cannot be excluded. The Secretary thought, however, that the tenor of Moscow’s reaction to our air strikes has been about what could be expected under the circumstances. He added that [Page 222]we were sorry that the February 9 strikes occurred while Kosygin was in Hanoi, and it was not the United States which planned it that way. In short, the Secretary said we cannot say for sure what the Soviets may do.

The Ambassador wondered if we were forced as a deterrent measure to strike further north in North Viet-Nam, whether that might not bring the Chinese Communists directly into the hostilities. The Secretary replied that there is no sure answer to such a question. The North Vietnamese probably fear a horde of Chinese coming into their country but, on the other hand, desire to take over South Viet-Nam. Who can tell which emotion would dominate? The Secretary did think, however, that if Hanoi fails to pull back, the situation can become more serious.

Stability of Political Situation in South Viet-Nam—The Ambassador asked about the prospects for greater political stability in South Viet-Nam and mused whether the Viet-Cong might not eventually win by a political takeover rather than by military means.

The Secretary regretted the effects of fourteen months of political instability in Hanoi [Saigon], which has made a bad impression abroad, including the United States, and sent the wrong kind of signal to Hanoi about the ability of South Viet-Nam to continue to resist. We hope very much that the current Saigon regime will endure, but in light of past events, cannot say for sure. In this connection, the Secretary pointed out that political commotion in Saigon affects only a comparatively few people and that traditionally the rural areas in South Viet-Nam are not too greatly affected by what happens in the capital. In areas in the countryside where the security of the population (about 75 percent) is assured, the villages and towns have cooperated satisfactorily with Saigon. In conclusion, the Secretary said that while the situation is not good, still it is not necessarily on the brink of collapse.

Possibility of Italian Assistance—The Ambassador again referred to the fact that Prime Minister Moro has not proposed an Italian initiative but does not remain indifferent to the seriousness of the situation. The Ambassador wondered, therefore, if there were not something useful that the Italians might be doing now to express their willingness to cooperate. The Secretary said he appreciated this willingness, but could not think of anything they could do at this particular juncture.

As he had already explained, we do have the channels for sounding out the Communists on Viet-Nam but so far none of the soundings has produced any satisfactory results.

The Ambassador commented that if the French through their contacts with Peiping and Hanoi succeeded in persuading the North Vietnamese to withdraw, would that not prove the value of maintaining such contacts. The Secretary replied that if the French so succeeded that [Page 223]would be fine, but so far there is no evidence of such success. He thought it important that our friends, including the French, first think about the desired results in Viet-Nam and then decide on how to achieve them. If Paris, for instance, equates the neutralization of South Viet-Nam with Communist domination of South East Asia, that, of course, would not be an acceptable result for the Free World. We can accept South Vietnamese and other South East Asian peoples being non-aligned quite happily, but we cannot sanction their being taken over by the Communist camp against their will.

Effect of the Viet-Nam Problem on Presidential Travel—Replying to the Ambassador’s inquiry, the Secretary stated no definite arrangements have been made for the President’s travel in Europe, which, as has been announced publicly, remains an intention in principle. How things shape up in South East Asia would, of course, be a factor affecting the timing of the President’s eventual trip to Europe.

The Ambassador warmly thanked the Secretary for his kind and useful reception and took his leave.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL IT-US. Confidential. Drafted by McKillop and approved in S on April 27. The meeting was held in the Secretary’s office.
  2. Moro supported U.S. policies in Vietnam in February 12 and 18 statements before the Italian Senate. The white paper was “Aggression From the North,” released February 27. Its contents are summarized in Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, vol. II, Document 171.
  3. For text of Rusk’s remarks, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1965, pp. 836-838.
  4. For text of the declaration and protocol on neutrality in Laos, signed in Geneva July 23, 1962, see 14 UST 1104. For documentation, see Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, volume XXIV.
  5. For texts of the Indochina accords, signed in Geneva July 20, 1954, see American Foreign Policy, 1950-1955: Basic Documents, pp. 750-788. For documentation, see Foreign Relations, 1952-1954, volume XIII.