309. Aide-Mémoire From President Johnson to Pope Paul VI1

I come to you on the eve of Christmas to discuss the best route to peace in Vietnam, and to explore your thoughts on this subject.

You have offered “unarmed cooperation in the reestablishment of true peace.”2 I accept that offer with eagerness and an open heart.

His Holiness has eloquently expressed the yearning felt by all humanity for peace in Vietnam. My government and people share that yearning. We know it is shared, too, by the people of South Vietnam—and indeed by all men, except a handful of fanatics in a few capitals.

Let me express my views on a course of action that has been frequently suggested in recent months. It is said that the United States should once again unilaterally stop the bombing of North Vietnam, with the hope that, somehow, that act of self-denial—together with the pressure of men of good will around the world—might bring the leaders of Hanoi to enter into serious negotiations for a peaceful settlement.

My country has tried this path before. I would not exclude the possibility that it may again appear wise at some point.

However, I am bound to say that two factors lead me to a position of the gravest doubt and reserve at the present time.

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The first factor is, that such action would cost the lives of many men now fighting against aggression. In every case in the past, cessation of the bombing has been used by the other side to accelerate the movement of supplies and men to the South.

For example, in the 37 day pause of 1965-66, I was told by representatives of the Soviet Union that if I could hold a pause for from 12 to 20 days, a serious move to negotiations might result.

Their judgment proved wrong. Nevertheless, I extended the pause to thrice 12 days. The United States received at the end what can only be described as a brutal diplomatic rebuff.

A year ago we worked for three months, through various diplomatic channels, to make the Tet season an occasion for the transition from war to peace.

The result was a massive exploitation of that pause by North Vietnam. The forces just above the demilitarized zone were re-supplied. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for a strategy of exerting pressure on the South by violating the demilitarized zone. We suffered great costs from their bad faith during 1967, and we have reason to believe that bad faith will be revived when the weather in that region improves.

Your Holiness, I have just today come from Vietnam. My responsible commanders in the field tell me that the North Vietnamese are at this moment taking steps to exploit even the very short pauses agreed to for Christmas, New Year’s and Tet.

My first reason, then, for rejecting the road of unilateral action and hope for a measured response, is that our experience and current intelligence tell me an increased price will be paid in the blood of my men.

But the second factor is even more important. It is my fear that, if Hanoi is free to—and believes it can—improve its military position through a bombing cessation, any talks that might result would be sterile and dilatory on Hanoi’s part. The result might well be a step away from peace rather than toward it.

These judgments could change as a result of some new sign from Hanoi along the lines I have suggested recently in a San Antonio speech3 and several other public addresses. His Holiness should be aware, in confidence, that the suggestions made at that time have been diligently explored through authentic contacts with Hanoi. They have been rebuffed both privately and publicly. I regret to report that Hanoi’s present position only reinforces the concerns I have stated above.

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I have tried repeatedly to interest Hanoi in the possibility of talks, either without conditions, or with the kind of limited unilateral reduction in bombing activity that my government attempted from late December of 1966 through early April of 1967. But there has been no useful response to these suggestions, which indeed go back over a long period.

Thus, I have been inclined in the last few months to look increasingly toward what might be achieved in the search for peace within South Vietnam itself. It is this in particular that I wish to discuss with His Holiness.

The question, of course, involves the so-called National Liberation Front and those individuals now associated with it. I am inclined to make a sharp distinction between these two.

On the one hand, we appear to be seeing today a subtle propaganda offensive designed to depict the Front as independent of Hanoi, and as having a position that might contribute to an honorable peace.

As to the Front’s independence, a great deal of evidence over many years has convinced me that, as an organization, it is, quite simply, an instrument of Hanoi.

As to the Front’s program, including the new version issued in September and recently circulated at the United Nations, I find myself deeply skeptical that it offers a reasonable peace.

On the contrary, the program appears to call for a coalition government in South Vietnam, in which the Front would control the levers of power—and, in short order, the whole political structure. Documents captured recently in South Vietnam, and of undoubted authenticity, contain instructions identical to those under which Communist Parties operated in certain Eastern European countries after the Second World War, with tragic results. Again in confidence, I must report that authentic contacts within the past month—with sources intimately familiar with Hanoi and the Front—have produced frank statements that support this gloomy interpretation.

Yet, on the other hand, I believe a situation is evolving within South Vietnam that may, at some point, produce real possibilities of movement toward peace through political contacts—not with the Front as an organization, but with individuals now associated with the Front. I referred to this possibility in my television conversation earlier this week.

For every reason, I believe such contacts must be primarily the affair of the South Vietnamese government. And, without easy optimism or hopes for immediate success, this is the path that I am inclined to pursue at the present time.

I believe many thoughtful South Vietnamese, including members of the government of South Vietnam, take the same view. President [Page 659] Thieu and I discussed it in Canberra a few days ago. Although he is understandably cautious, I believe he desires to be constructive if real possibilities should open up.

The South Vietnamese are concerned, as talk increases about a solution between Saigon and the “NLF”, that a highly organized Communist minority, operating as a popular front, might defeat the large—and presently fragmented—non-Communist majority in a political battle.

In the light of these views, I believe it important that our influence on the South Vietnamese be exercised in two directions.

  • First, we should encourage the South Vietnamese to find a solution in South Vietnam, understanding all the while the extreme delicacy of the question of “recognizing” the NLF. I believe President Thieu’s formula is useful. He has said that he will talk “informally” with “members” of the NLF.

    Leading anti-Communist figures in South Vietnam, including President Thieu and the newly elected president of the South Vietnamese Senate, Nguyen Van Huyen, for example, might be encouraged to look in this direction. For peace will require some form of reconciliation among those who live their lives in that country. Peace can best be achieved by South Vietnamese, for South Vietnam, in South Vietnam.

  • Second, I believe those who have some influence in South Vietnam must encourage the South Vietnamese to organize the great anti-Communist majority into some sort of effective national political coalition.

As I look ahead, it seems to me inevitable that some day the Communists, having abandoned war, will seek power in South Vietnam through political means. Those who have resisted Communism on the battlefield must be prepared to resist it at the polls. The continued fragmentation of the vast non-Communist majority could result in a tragedy which would render fruitless all the courage and suffering that have gone into the struggle so far.

It would be good if Your Holiness’ influence in South Vietnam, as well as mine and all others who can help, could continue to be used to help overcome the inherited factionalism of South Vietnamese political life so that this gallant but suffering people could face their political future with confidence and with the knowledge that the Communists would not be capable of defeating them at the ballot box.

If these thoughts conform to your own knowledge and insight, you could, in your New Year’s statement on the Day of Peace, speak directly to the South Vietnamese. You could urge those now working with the Viet Cong to abandon the dream of conquering their country through terror and aggression. You could urge them to turn to the path of national reconciliation; and you could call on those who now fight in this little country to turn their thoughts and energies to the needs of the people.

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I should also like to call Your Holiness’ attention to a matter of intense concern to the American people. I refer to the fate and welfare of American prisoners of war held in North Vietnam.

We have just learned that Christmas packages sent to the men by their families in America have been rejected and returned by Hanoi. Mail to and from the prisoners has been severely limited. Requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the prisoners have been repeatedly rebuffed by North Vietnam, nor has a list of names of prisoners been provided. These are all basic rights of prisoners of war stated in the Geneva Convention, to which North Vietnam has adhered.

Your Holiness might be willing to offer to send a representative to North Vietnam, and to talk with the government there about the condition of the prisoners. I feel sure the government of South Vietnam would willingly agree to a visit by your representatives to prisoners in the South.

On the eve of Christmas, when Christians—and men of other faiths—are touched by a divine spirit, I have come round the world to ask your help—and to pledge that I shall not cease to struggle for a stable and honorable peace.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Head of State Correspondence, Vatican, Vol. 1. No classification marking. In The Vantage Point, p. 379, Johnson stated that this aide-mémoire was sent to the Pope prior to their December 23 meeting (see Document 310) and that the Pope, who had a copy with him, “had read it before I arrived.”
  2. Reference is to the Pope’s December 8 statement welcoming announcement of a bombing pause in Vietnam.
  3. For text of the President’s September 10 speech, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967, Book II, pp. 876-881.