350. Memorandum From the Representative to the United Nations (Stevenson) to President Johnson1


  • Secretary General’s proposal for temporary cessation of hostilities in Viet Nam

Although the Secretary General has so far deferred to our wishes by delaying his appeal for a cease fire in Viet Nam, I cannot be sure that he will defer some action indefinitely following his return from Europe on Friday, May 7th. He is acutely conscious of his responsibilities as Secretary General, troubled by criticism that he as Secretary General and the UN as an institution have not been able to contribute to a solution in Viet Nam, and strongly convinced that the continued use of force holds no promise for a settlement but only the ever-increasing danger of wider warfare, as well as a re-orientation of Soviet foreign policy [Page 758] from limited détente with the West to close cooperation with Communist China.

Given this estimate of the Secretary General’s mood, we have set down below some of the advantages and disadvantages of acquiescing in an appeal by the Secretary General for a cessation of hostilities in Viet Nam.



If we are receptive to the idea of the Secretary General’s appeal, we will obviously be in the best position to influence its contents and timing.

While we do not exclude an appeal to cease all hostilities, the Secretary General may not think it wise to make an appeal broad enough to cover the fighting within South Viet Nam because North Viet Nam could more easily reject this appeal on the grounds that it does not control the Viet Cong. Moreover, we doubt if it would be in our interest to accept an appeal which would prevent us and the South Vietnamese from continuing the war against the Viet Cong.

We believe the Secretary General would be willing to make an appeal which principal paragraph would be along the following lines:

“Therefore, I now appeal most earnestly and urgently to your Government to agree, along with the other two governments directly concerned (SVN and DRV), to: (a) A cessation or a period of ___ all military activity in Viet Nam, both overt and covert, across the boundaries, land, sea or air, of either of the Zones established in the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Viet Nam of July 20, 1954,2 such cessation to take place as of the date of the acceptance of this appeal by the three parties to which it is addressed; (b) immediate discussions in whatever manner the parties prefer, designed to strengthen and maintain the cessation of military activity and to seek the basis for a more permanent settlement”. The Secretary General proposed a three months cessation but would take a shorter period if we prefer.

A favorable US response to the Secretary General’s appeal (conditional on a favorable response from North Viet Nam) would greatly reinforce and add the improved US image which stemmed from the President’s April 7th speech.3
Rejection of the Secretary General’s appeal by North Viet Nam would do serious damage to the Communists’ international posture and, at the same time, provide us with further justification in the eyes [Page 759] of the world community for continuing our air strikes against the North.
An appeal from the Secretary General would place him on record as implicitly admitting that North Viet Nam is engaged in the use of force against South Viet Nam.
The Secretary General, by making such an appeal, would become the center of the effort to terminate hostilities in Viet Nam, a fact which would facilitate a later move on our part—should we so desire—to involve the UN in the role of supervising or policing a negotiated settlement.


International pressure on the US to cease its air strike against the North will probably increase rather than decrease, and a favorable US response to the Secretary General’s appeal might be interpreted by some as a sign of weakness. This would not, however, be the case and could be counteracted by vigorous prosecution of the war against the Viet Cong.
Another possible disadvantage, one we are unable to assess, is the adverse effect the temporary cessation of air strikes against the North might have on the morale of the South Vietnamese.
If air strikes against the North were stopped in response to the Secretary General’s appeal, I suppose we would be subjected to pressure not to resume them even if we subsequently found that the North was continuing its infiltration of the South.
In this connection, our judgment (and the Secretary General’s) is that unilateral surveillance by the US and South Viet Nam is the only practicable means available for the immediate future. To police a cessation of hostilities an effective international police force could not be agreed on and established fast enough to deal with this situation.

We are also frankly dubious that surveillance by some international body—whether the UN or some other ad hoc body—would serve our interests at this stage. While it could easily check whether air strikes against the North had been halted, it would find it very hard, if not impossible, to check whether infiltration from the North had stopped. We might find ourselves in the position of claiming that the North had not lived up to the cease-fire bargain without confirmation from the international body. However, an international force to police an agreed settlement would be quite a different thing.

There is one fundamental strategic and political factor which underlies the whole problem.

The border objectives of US policy are, in general, to demonstrate that Communist conquests, labeled as “wars of liberation”, cannot be [Page 760] carried out successfully and, in particular, to “contain” Communist Chinese ambitions to dominate Southeast Asia and North Vietnamese ambitions to absorb South Viet Nam.

The United States has the force to carry out these tasks, if the American people have the steadfastness to pursue them over many years. Experience in Europe shows that the job can be done, but also shows that it can be done much more successfully as a cooperative venture by many threatened states than by the U.S. alone.

The same applies in large degree in Asia. One vital practical factor must be so to carry out our operations there as to contribute to rather than to inhibit the eventual creation of a great defensive coalition. Essential members of an effective coalition in Asia would have to be, among others, Japan and India, the absence of which has made SEATO of limited value.

Our tactics in Viet Nam so far, necessary as they are from other points of view, have not generated wide-spread Asian support, except among the small, weak states directly under the gun. This may not seem to matter at the moment, but how long will the American people be willing to carry almost the whole burden of containment in Asia.

On the other hand, our bold, determined action in Viet Nam in the past three months has probably already persuaded the major Communist powers that they can no longer pursue “wars of national liberation” in Asia, even in a relatively covert form without very grave risks to themselves; the risk for the Soviets of a total breakdown of their policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the West, the risk for the Chinese of an unequal direct conflict with the United States. This realization is too recent to have yet produced a visible effect, but it is probably there and will give some pause to further Chinese expansionist plans.

It may be, therefore, that the lesson has already, or will soon, be driven home sufficiently so that we might begin to tailor our tactics more specifically to the longer run objective, that is, to creating an Asian consensus and eventually an Asian coalition for the containment of China, a coalition in which the United States would of course participate heavily but which it would not have to carry almost entirely on its own back.

Another paramount political consideration is, of course, to reverse as quickly as we can, without other major drawbacks, a situation which tends willy-nilly to drive the Soviets into following a common policy with the Chinese, rather than Khrushchev policy of open hostility to the Chinese. This of course works against our interests everywhere and, inter alia, inhibits the Soviet Union itself from participating in the containment of China, as it might otherwise wish to do to some degree.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Agency File, United Nations, U.S. Representative—Stevenson. Confidential. A typewritten note on the memorandum reads: “Dictated via telephone.” Printed in the Papers of Adlai E. Stevenson, vol. VIII, pp. 746–748.
  2. For text, see Foreign Relations, 1952–1954, vol. XVI, pp. 15051546.
  3. For text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, Book I, pp. 394–399.