38. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • M. Couve de Murville
  • Ambassador Alphand
  • M. Charles Lucet
  • Secretary of State Rusk
  • Ambassador Bohlen

The Secretary began by extending his congratulations, which he said were belated, for the successful Common Market negotiations in which Couve had been involved, adding that they could now look forward to the Kennedy Round. He remarked that the U.S. had considered it would be helpful to urge the Germans on this matter and we had done so and it possibly had been helpful.

Couve de Murville made a suitable response.

The Secretary said that he had come to see Couve on the question of the intentions of Hanoi which had been mentioned by Couve the other day;2 French estimates of these intentions seemed to be somewhat different from those which we attributed to Hanoi.

Couve replied that, in the last conversation, the Secretary had concentrated on North Vietnam. The French, however, felt that, rather like the European satellites and the Soviet Union, it was impossible to ignore China, although they recognize that North Vietnam did not have the same interests as China since the former wished to retain its independence. It was as if South Vietnam wished to negotiate without the U.S. He said he did not know what we wished to find out. He said their information was that there were considerable economic difficulties in North Vietnam although it constituted no threat to the stability of the Ho Chi Minh regime. This had been confirmed in a conversation between the Cambodian Foreign Minister and Seydoux in New York. The Foreign Minister had said that the regime was very solid and enjoyed the support of the people, but that from an economic point of view life was very drab. He also reported that there seemed to be general expectation of a U.S. attack and that there were machine guns, etc., on the roofs of the houses. It was the French impression that the government [Page 66] of North Vietnam had no intention of taking over South Vietnam for at least the next ten years and that its main objective at the present time was a return to the ′54 agreements. He did not deny their belief in ultimate reunification.

The Cambodian Foreign Minister had remarked about the importance of helping South Vietnam, if the fighting could be brought to an end, in order to show a better system than Communism. Couve said that he felt the North Vietnamese were between two elements, the United States in the south and the Chinese in the north, and did not wish to give in to either.

The Secretary remarked that he did not believe that the North Vietnamese could think that the south wanted to take over the north and that all that was needed was for the north to stop the guerrilla action.

Couve replied there was no point of arguing as to who had begun the present situation. He said the U.S. now had some 22,000 men in there and the north was sending in guerrillas.

The Secretary replied that who began it and when was a point of considerable importance.

Couve answered that there was a question as to whether the Viet Cong had intervened because of U.S. takeover from the French in South Vietnam or whether the U.S. had begun it following intervention by the Viet Cong. He said he would not like to enter into this discussion. There were psychological and reciprocal fears to be considered. The fact, however, was that now a situation exists which could only be solved by simultaneous disengagement, which they felt could only be brought about by negotiation.

He said also the Chinese had no military combat forces in Vietnam, to which the Secretary agreed, saying they only had some training troops and forces along the border.

The Secretary, turning to Laos, remarked that in yesterday’s conversation President De Gaulle had said that Souphanouvong had never questioned the status of Souvanna Phouma as Prime Minister of Laos.3 According to our information this was precisely what he had challenged for the purpose of going to a conference.

Couve said that according to the French understanding Souphanouvong accepted Souvanna Phouma as Prime Minister but only in the sense that he was the chairman, as it were, of the three factions in Laos. He added that if Souvanna Phouma were able to be Prime Minister on his own, and if there were no three factions in Laos there would be no Laotian problem.

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The Secretary remarked that it was one thing to say that the Prime Minister required the concurrence of the three factions. It was another thing when the writ of the Prime Minister does not run in Pathet Lao, as has been the case in Laos since the entry into force of the present government. Because of this there has been no possibility of controlling the 6,000 Viet Minh and the use of Laos as a corridor to Vietnam.

Couve said there were difficulties on both sides of this question.

The Secretary said he did not think that one could present the situation in South Vietnam as though it was an evenly balanced affair with wrong on both sides.

Couve said they did not pretend it was evenly balanced, but there were difficulties on both sides.

The Secretary then remarked that agreement in Laos had never been conditioned on the situation in Vietnam.

Couve agreed, but said the purpose of the agreement was to keep Laos as calm as possible. In fact, however, he recognized that Vietnam did have an effect on the Laotian situation. He said in a sense the ′62 agreement had been successful, but now the war had begun again and the situation had returned to the pre-Geneva stage with Souvanna Phouma in the same situation as General Phoumi had been in 1961.

The Secretary pointed out that the position of the ICC was the result of direct fraud on the part of the Russians. In Geneva it had been understood that the ICC would, by two-thirds vote, have the right to investigate developments in any region of the country. The English wording implied that such a vote would be with the consent of the Laotian Government, that is, with the consent already granted by the Geneva Agreement. The French wording was somewhat less clear. This had been pointed out by Mr. Harriman to Pushkin, but Pushkin had confirmed the meaning of the English text. However, in practice the Polish member had invoked the Pathet Lao veto as a reason for not carrying out this agreement.

Couve then inquired what could be done in the circumstances.

The Secretary said that Gromyko had suggested that they should see what the three Laotian factions could do together, and he understood that Souvanna Phouma had proposed a meeting in Laos but that he had not heard whether there had been an answer.

Couve agreed and said he understood the meeting place suggested was Luang Prabang.

Lucet, in reply to a question, said that there were still lower representatives of the Laotian factions in Paris but there were no meetings.

Couve said he agreed that the best thing would be for them to meet and that he did not know about the prospects.

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The Secretary then inquired whether or not they had had anything from Hanoi on the subject of Laos.

Couve replied they have not, but pointed out that they had no real representatives in Hanoi, and there was only a low-level trade delegation from Hanoi in Paris.

The Secretary said that we had had some indirect contacts with Hanoi but there had been nothing serious.

Couve remarked that the North Vietnamese would never tell us anything except to express their concern for future American intentions. They could not say anything constructive. They could only tell us to get out just the way we told them to get out.

The Secretary added that we have always said if they got out we would get out.

Couve said this is what they say, but suppose both sides get out—what would then happen?

The Secretary remarked that with the Viet Cong out it would be much easier for the South Vietnamese, and particularly the army, to organize the country.

Couve said the French did not agree and he did not think that ten or twelve generals squabbling among themselves could organize the country with the Buddhists, the sects, and the mountain people all in disagreement.

The Secretary said that the absence of the Viet Cong would make it a new and easier situation.

Couve said this was true but it would be impossible to foresee what would be the outcome. The present rulers were old men and they were not bad but it was obvious that they were not going to last. What was needed was time, with no fighting and no foreign intervention. A national movement was needed. He added that the French aim was to avoid a Communist regime.

The Secretary remarked that he had received that impression from his talk with General De Gaulle, who had said that despite the consequences, even Communism, he preferred peace in the Far East.

Couve said they should work to avoid a Communist regime. He then inquired specifically what the U.S. would like to find out from the North Vietnamese. Was it that we wished South Vietnam to be independent and to stop interference from the north?

The Secretary replied there were many complications, and that perhaps an important indicator of Communist intentions would be the Laos Agreement of 1962. It might be possible, for example, to inquire of Souphanouvong exactly what his attitude was in regard to Souvanna Phouma as Prime Minister at the conference, to which Couve agreed. He also wondered whether it might not be possible to inquire as to the [Page 69] reaction of Souphanouvong in regard to the Polish proposal for a preliminary meeting attended by the two co-chairmen, the ICC, and the Government of Laos.

Couve said it was not easy now, but the Secretary said it might be possible to ascertain prospects of success before proceeding to a formal conference and it might give the Russians a chance to do something without the presence of the Chinese or the U.S.

Couve then asked if it would be possible to say that the U.S. would be satisfied if Souphanouvong agreed that Souvanna Phouma would be Prime Minister but, at the same time, on the basis of an agreement of the three parties.

The Secretary said this would depend on whether this meant that Souvanna Phouma could only act as the Pathet Lao wished at the conference.

Couve said this would seem to him to be a matter of procedure, which the Laotians could agree among themselves. He did recall how it had worked at the Geneva Conference in 1961-62.4 He asked what would happen if the Russians or Chinese should refer to the U.S. or Thailand military personnel in Laos at a conference.

The Secretary replied that this would be quite all right with us. The ICC could look at anything provided it is not one-sided. The original agreement in ′62 had provided for elimination of all foreign troops except a certain number of French. This had been our objective, and Couve agreed that it still was.

Couve then said that under the agreement the ICC had the right to inspect, which the Secretary confirmed was by a two-thirds vote.

The Secretary then suggested that it might be useful for the French to make the contact with South Vietnam rather than Hanoi.

In conclusion, the Secretary suggested that the French might wish to make a check on a number of North Vietnamese statements in 1959-60, which he said had gone very far in calling for the conquest of South Vietnam.

Couve said he had always understood that the position of the north had been to return to ′54 but that the statements referred to seemed to go further.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, France, Vol. 5. Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Bohlen. The meeting was held at the Quai d’Orsay. Rusk was in Paris for the North Atlantic Council Ministerial meeting December 15-17.
  2. Rusk reported on this discussion in telegram Secto 15 from Paris, December 15. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL FR-US)
  3. Reported in telegram Secto 26 from Paris, December 16. (Ibid., Conference Files: Lot 66 D 110, CF 2534)
  4. Documentation on the Geneva Conference on Laos is in Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, volume XXIV.