358. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Vietnam


  • Secretary General of the UNU Thant
  • Under Secretary—Ralph J. Bunche
  • Under Secretary—C. V. Narasimhan
  • Under Secretary—J. Rolz-Bennett
  • Secretary of State—Dean Rusk
  • Acting U.S. Representative to UN2Francis T.P. Plimpton
  • Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs—Harlan Cleveland

After a discussion of the Stevenson fellowship proposal (reported in a separate memorandum),3 the Secretary asked U Thant to suggest the agenda for this conversation. The Secretary General said he wanted first to discuss Vietnam, referring to his talk with the President in San Francisco and to the talks he had with Governor Stevenson in Geneva.4

The Secretary General said he had been struck by a published comment by Averell Harriman in Moscow,5 to the effect that in Vietnam, the North and South should settle their own affairs.

The Secretary said this was not a deliberate act of policy, but was consistent with our general thinking. Peace could come in one of two fashions. There could be a Conference, called in any of a number of ways; but there seemed little interest in conferring as far as Hanoi is concerned. Or peace could come de facto by parallel decisions to let the fighting “peter out,” as in the Greek guerrilla case in the 1940s.

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We have had frank talks with Moscow, the Secretary said. But Moscow is unable to take the initiative so is being dragged along. Washington and Moscow are unable to strike a relevant bargain, since Moscow cannot deliver. Nor can we talk bilaterally with Hanoi, without involvement of the Saigon Government.

Dr. Bunche asked about dealing with the Viet Cong. The Secretary said we are in South Vietnam because Hanoi is there. We perceive no large-scale political movement associated with the Viet Cong. If there is a pull-back by Hanoi, the National Liberation Front could take its proper place as one of a number of parties in a South Vietnam political framework.

The Secretary General said his assessment was this. The Geneva settlement of 1954,6 he said, was all right. Up until September of last year, there was a realistic possibility of making both South and North Vietnam neutral and independent. That is why he (the Secretary General) asked Ho Chi Minh if he would meet with the United States. Through the Russians, Ho said yes. The best place seemed to be Rangoon and Ne Win agreed. But the United States did not agree on the ground that it might hurt morale in Saigon. For eleven years Hanoi was pro-Peking. Until last year, an Austrian-type solution was possible. But now Hanoi seems to be following Peking’s line. (Later in the conversation, the Secretary General contradicted this and said he still feels Hanoi is basically closer to Moscow.)

There followed a brief argument about facts in Laos. The Secretary General said that CIA was working against Souvanna Phouma, and for Phoumi Nosavam. The Secretary said this was simply wrong, that indeed, we had restrained Phoumi from conducting a successful coup.

As the discussion reverted to Vietnam, the Secretary General conceded that the Communists’ basic condition—that the U.S. should be willing to get out—has been met. But he said it is too late because Hanoi is now following the Peking line.

The Secretary General said we now need a cease-fire by everybody involved. That was why he had tried out on us his March 31st text.7 He had held this up on our advice.

The Secretary asked whether it would not be better to have a conference at which a cease-fire is the first item on the agenda. The Secretary General held to the view that a “Geneva Conference” with a cease-fire ahead of time “if possible”, would be the best arrangement.

The Secretary commented that it was certainly news to him if Hanoi had ever been prepared to be “neutralized”.

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There followed another discussion on the issue whether Hanoi’s infiltration or the Americans presence in South Vietnam had started it all. The Secretary General said the United States had military advisers and were providing military assistance from the outset after the 1954 agreements. The Secretary said the Communists began immediately to provide military assistance. “But it was the military advisers that made all the difference,” the Secretary General said. The Secretary said that at first they were only advisers on logistics and supply matters. Only after President Kennedy came into office were other advisory elements added, to frustrate the growing threat from the North.

The Secretary said we must have a further discussion of the facts in the Vietnam case.

The Secretary General, returning to the proposed Geneva Conference, raised again the issue of representation. “Is there a government in Saigon?”, he asked rhetorically. He also said there was a clear difference between the NLF and Hanoi; for example, in a letter to U Thant, Prince Sihanouk had said the National Liberation Front was tougher than Hanoi. Perhaps the right answer was the one suggested in London by Eric Williams, the Prime Minister of Trinidad-Tobago: That three Vietnamese groups (Hanoi, Saigon and the NLF) should be represented at a conference. The Secretary General said that he and many UN members were bothered by analogies: Would the recently expressed American doctrine mean that if there was infiltration anywhere in Asia or even in Europe, that the United States would bomb the country of the infiltrators? He then rehearsed his familiar line that the answer in Southeast Asia was for the United States not to be involved in a military way, and to stick to economic aid.

His reference to Burma’s success in remaining non-Communist without aid, brought a reminder from the Secretary that Burma had been getting military aid. The Secretary General said the Burmese had assured him last year that there was no U.S. aid, but now told him it was a special arrangement for creating counterpart funds and buying military equipment at a discount. He said he was not sure this should be called military aid, but in any event it was not visible and did not involve a military presence.

The Secretary said we would like to make progress toward convening a Geneva conference with a cease-fire first on its agenda. Alternatively, peace could be made by the de facto route. But the difficulties of the de facto route were illustrated by the recent pause in our bombing. On the very first day of the pause, perhaps by coincidence, Peking said that if bombing stopped it would make no difference. On the third day of the pause, the Secretary was in Vienna and saw Gromyko who said that to stop bombing in these circumstances was an [Page 777] insult. In all equity the Secretary said, Hanoi would have to get its 325th Division out of South Vietnam and the contiguous areas of Laos. Maybe the Communists miscalculated, feeling that our election speeches about not wanting to widen the war made it possible for them to widen the war on their side with impunity. But the fact is we mean business. They will not be permitted to take over South Vietnam by force.

After another excursion into the history of Vietnam, the Secretary General rather suddenly asked what reaction the Secretary would have to getting both South Vietnam and North Vietnam into the UN. The Secretary said he would ponder it.

The Secretary said we do not think the Chinese Communists want to carry things to the point of a general war. But so far they are in the position of being able to “fight to the last Vietnamese”. The Secretary General agreed, commenting “Yes, they are having a heyday”.

The Secretary asked whether it would be useful, short of calling for a Security Council meeting, to bring our reporting to the Council on Vietnam up to date—sometime within the next week or ten days. The Secretary General said he thought that it would be useful.

In a brief discussion of the Harriman mission to Moscow, the Secretary said the conversations so far showed no serious advance. Indeed, he thought that the Russians were rather embarrassed to be caught talking with us about Vietnam.

The Secretary General suggested we might want to talk with Nakrumah before he leaves for Moscow on his announced mission. The Secretary said we had that very much in mind.

Drafting Officer’s Comment:

In his talks with Ambassador Stevenson in Geneva two weeks ago, the Secretary General had taken under advisement the idea of a Security Council meeting in which, by advance agreement, there would be no polemics and simply a consensus that the Vietnamese situation requires the convening of a conference of the Geneva powers. Ambassador Stevenson’s understanding was that the next step would be for the Secretary General to take this up with the Soviets, presumably through the acting representative in New York, Platon Morozov. Evidently, the Secretary General has not pursued this with the Soviets, and does not now think a Security Council meeting of any kind would be useful.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Agency File, United Nations, Vol . 2. Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Cleveland and approved by S on July 23. In a July 22 memorandum attached to a copy of this memoranda of conversation sent to Arthur Goldberg, Cleveland wrote: “I think you will find it useful as a summary of the kind of dialogue we have been having with the Secretary General right along. But this was the sharpest confrontation yet.” (Department of State, U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Subject File, Reel 127, Frame 302)
  2. Ambassador Stevenson died in London July 14.
  3. Not found.
  4. No record of the President’s talk with U Thant was found. According to President Johnson’s Daily Diary, he met with U Thant between 1:10 and 2:15 p.m., June 25, for a private discussion dealing with Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and the UN debt issue. (Johnson Library) A record of the Stevenson-U Thant meeting is in Papers of Adlai E. Stevenson, vol. VIII, pp. 813–814.
  5. During Harriman’s July 15–22 visit to Moscow; the statement was reported in The New York Times, July 19.
  6. See footnote 2, Document 350.
  7. Regarding this approach, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. II, Document 228, section 2.