374. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Viet-Nam


  • UN—Secretary General U Thant
  • UN—Under Secretary Ralph Bunche
  • State—Under Secretary George Ball
  • USUN—Ambassador Goldberg (in part); Mr. Richard Pedersen
  • State—Assistant Secretary Sisco
  • State—Mr. George Springsteen

Mr. Ball opened his courtesy call on the Secretary General by telling him there was a solid group of admirers of the Secretary General in Washington, and that we believe he is doing a difficult job admirably. We want to be helpful to him in achieving his objectives. Mr. Ball explained that his visit was part of a program of more regular visits to the UN by high level officers from the Department, including regional assistant secretaries over the next ten days.

The Secretary General thanked Mr. Ball warmly and commented how very helpful Ambassador Goldberg has been and how quickly he has grasped the essentials of the work in New York. He asked Mr. Ball to convey to the President the Secretary General’s belief that the President had made an excellent choice in bringing Ambassador Goldberg to the UN.

[Page 815]

The Secretary General then immediately launched into Viet-Nam at his own initiative, inviting Mr. Ball to make any comments that he wished.

Mr. Ball informed the Secretary General that Mr. Rusk was today in Texas to discuss a number of matters with the President, including Viet-Nam.2 He noted that the Secretary also would be reporting today on the Secretary General’s conversation of last week with Ambassador Goldberg.3 Mr. Ball stressed that we do not want to overlook any possibilities for bringing the Viet-Nam problem to a peaceful resolution, and that a complete canvass of the question would be made in the Texas conversations, including the possibility of further diplomatic initiatives.

The Secretary General, almost without interruption, then went into a detailed rundown of the efforts he has made in the interest of a peaceful solution of the Viet-Nam problem, since August of a year ago, expressing regret that they did not succeed. He said pointedly one thing continues to trouble him: was the President aware of his suggestions? Mr. Ball responded that the President was aware of the Secretary General’s suggestions and that they were considered in the light of diplomatic possibilities then pending—though perhaps these suggestions might not have been as clearly explained to Washington as they should have been.

The Secretary General said he didn’t know what role he now could play since indications are that Hanoi would not respond to any attempts by him now. He has not made any attempts to contact Peking in the last two years. He had felt that there was some prospect of contact with the Chinese in Algeria this past year since Ben Bella had invited the Secretary General to go there. When Chou En-lai arrived in Algeria, however, he told Ben Bella that he would object to meeting with the Secretary General as Secretary General, though he would not object to seeing him as an individual. This attitude on the part of Peking was confirmed when Chou left Algeria and stopped off in Burma to see Ne Win who advised Chou that he should see the Secretary General. The Secretary General indicated that he knows both Chou and Mao Tse Tung very well.

He also knows Ho Chi Minh. He recalled that he spent two days with Ho in 1954 when he accompanied U Nu to Peking, and he had a three-fold impression of him at that time: (a) that Ho Chi Minh was not a communist, (b) that he was not pro-Chinese (this fact was confirmed [Page 816] to the Secretary General by all of the ICC representatives, particularly the Indian), and (c) that he had a strong attachment for everything French.

The Secretary General then recalled his conversations with General De Gaulle in the summer of 1964 saying that he had endorsed publicly De Gaulle’s proposal for a neutralized Southeast Asia.4 Mr. Ball recalled that he, too, had talked to De Gaulle a year ago in June5 and had found himself in agreement on a number of aspects of the Viet-Nam problem with De Gaulle though not on a number of the procedural aspects. Mr. Ball recalled that he had asked De Gaulle what was meant by a neutralized Southeast Asia. If it included withdrawal of forces of both sides, we could contemplate such a thing. If neutralization meant that the neutralized state would abstain from joining any alliances, this also could be contemplated. If it meant that the state might agree not to maintain any foreign bases on its soil, this was also possible.

Finally, General De Gaulle had accepted the principle that a sovereign state must have the right to call for outside support if threatened by aggression.

But, said Mr. Ball while De Gaulle was prepared to concur with an acceptable definition of neutrality he did not offer any workable means of bringing about a peace based on these principles. The result was a point of divergence between ourselves and France. General De Gaulle’s only procedural proposal was the calling of a big conference of 30–35 nations in which the problems of Southeast Asia could be submerged. Mr. Ball said we could contemplate a conference if it would be based on the principles he cited above and if the conference dealt realistically with the cessation of infiltration and aggression in South Viet-Nam.

It was on this point that De Gaulle’s answers were unsatisfactory. The General’s only proposal was that a cease-fire should begin the day the conference convened. De Gaulle was confident that once a cease-fire was called Ho Chi Minh would not fire a shot thereafter. Mr. Ball had replied that this was not in accordance with experience. What we faced in South Viet-Nam was not the classical confrontation of armies in regular formation but a war in which the aggressors and the defenders were all mixed up geographically. Under those circumstances it was very hard to see how a cease-fire could be effectively arranged—and once arranged how it could be policed. Mr. Ball was confident that unless a cease-fire was enforceable Ho Chi Minh would continue his guerrilla warfare and thus make a mockery of the negotiation.

[Page 817]

The Secretary General said that his July meeting with De Gaulle had not dealt with these difficult modalities, and he had the impression that De Gaulle had in mind an Austrian-type neutrality. Both the Secretary General and Mr. Ball agreed that General De Gaulle in these respective conversations had not given any indication that he had had any kind of positive signal from Hanoi or that the views expressed regarding the neutralization of Southeast Asia were anything other than the views of General De Gaulle.

The Secretary General then turned to his meeting with Secretary Rusk in Washington in August of 19646 in which he said he sought to emphasize the point that a private dialogue (he says the word negotiation is anathema to the other side) would be necessary between the United States and Hanoi. From this meeting the Secretary General got the impression that Washington was generally receptive to talks with the other side, although he admitted that no definite assurances were given.

As soon as he had returned from his Washington talks he arranged to contact Ho Chi Minh through the USSR. He had informed the USSR that he wanted only Hanoi contacted with a view to seeing whether it was possible to get the Americans and North Vietnamese together in exploratory talks. He was confident that Peking did not know of this at that time and that the secret was kept from Peking for many months.

He said he had received a reply in three weeks through the USSR (September 1964). The USSR had informed him that Ho Chi Minh would be glad to send a representative anywhere the Americans wanted. The Secretary General also said that the DRV was thinking in terms of Ambassadorial level talks through each country’s local representatives.

The Secretary General had asked Stevenson to convey this to Washington and both he and Stevenson had agreed that this was an opportunity that should be seized.

Thereafter he met Stevenson at least once every week.7 Stevenson could say nothing, however, except that he had received no reply from Washington. He said Stevenson never mentioned McNamara at any time regarding these suggestions, and Mr. Ball confirmed that Mr. McNamara was not aware of these proposals.

On December 2 Thant entered the hospital to have his ulcer treated and he and Stevenson lost contact three weeks. At the end of December he asked Stevenson if he had received a reply and Stevenson said he had no reply as yet.

[Page 818]

The Secretary General said that after his return from Jamaica he met again with Stevenson on January 11 or 12. Stevenson had then asked the Secretary General at what place and at what level the conversations might take place. The Secretary General said he discussed four possibilities with Stevenson (Cambodia, France, Burma, Pakistan). He and Stevenson agreed that Burma would be best—with the level of representation to be the Ambassador on the spot since this would reduce the visibility. (Moreover, the Secretary General said that he held Ambassador Byroade in highest regard.) The Secretary General said that he directed a query to Rangoon and that Ne Win had replied, within 24 hours, that he would be willing to provide facilities in Rangoon. This was on the 16th of January.

During this period the Secretary General said he kept the Soviets regularly informed. The Soviets asked him on occasion for information regarding the United States reaction. The Secretary General said that on the 29th or 30th of January Stevenson gave the reply. Stevenson said that Washington had considered the Secretary General’s suggestions fully and that it could not agree. The reason given the Secretary General by Stevenson was that the United States could not engage in discussions without the South Vietnamese since this would demoralize them and might result in another fall of the Government there. The Secretary General said that both he and Stevenson had agreed that, in view of the fact that there had been so many governmental changes in Saigon, the argument regarding the fall of government was not a persuasive one.

The Secretary General said that at the end of January he transmitted our reply to Hanoi. He has since found out that Peking did not learn of all this until February of this year at which time Peking then blasted Moscow. Without mentioning the Secretary General specifically, Peking started attacking him in June or July of this year.

The Secretary General said that his message must have gotten to Hanoi about February 5 when the bombing started.

At his press conference on February 24 he disclosed, in answer to a question, that he had made certain suggestions to the parties and indicated that his efforts were not conclusive.8 He informed the UK on February 16 generally of his effort and the French on February 21.

He then recalled the Frye leak in the Chicago Sun Times and his affirmative response at a press conference to Don Grant’s (of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)9 question as to whether the United States had been given the [Page 819] Secretary General’s suggestions. With some signs of displeasure, the Secretary General then recalled the Reedy statement that the Secretary General had not made any “meaningful” proposals.

Later, the Secretary General drafted the text of his cease-fire proposal and gave a copy of this appeal to Stevenson in April.10 He described his proposal as calling for a two-month moratorium, covering both overt and covert military activities. He said Stevenson agreed this was a good text and sent it on to Washington on April 18.

The Secretary General said that he revised his proposal later in May to drop the specific references to Pearson proposals made in the Prime Minister’s Philadelphia speech. We had expressed displeasure at that time that these proposals had been made without consultations on the eve of Pearson’s trip to Camp David.11 The Secretary General said he had asked Washington (through Stevenson) for suggestions for any modifications in his cease-fire appeal. He noted that Sevareid was erroneous in saying that he (the Secretary General) had indicated we could write the proposal in any manner in which we wanted. He recalled also that he sent the cease-fire proposal to a number of capitals, including London, Paris, Saigon, the ICC capitals, Hanoi, Peking, Moscow and Washington. Without elaborating, he confirmed that Hanoi and Peking refused even to receive these proposals.

He said that when he saw Stevenson in Geneva in July the latter had said he had no reply from Washington on the cease-fire proposal.

Finally, the Secretary General said that on August 12 he had advanced a new cease-fire proposal to Peking, Hanoi and Saigon and the Western capitals. The proposal had never leaked out.12

After having run through the above chronology in very considerable detail, the Secretary General reflected for a moment and said he wanted to go back even farther. He recalled that in November, 1963, after Diem’s fall, he had told Stevenson that the US must do something and had told him that every effort should be made to establish a national government in which all sections and all groups of Viet-Nam would be represented. He suggested the US should contact Tran Van Huu in Paris and ask him to return to Saigon to form such a government. He reported that Stevenson was enthusiastic over this proposal and had transmitted it to Washington.

Mr. Ball replied that—particularly in view of our experience in Laos—we were persuaded that a coalition government would be only a prelude to the Viet-Cong takeover of the Government in the South. The [Page 820] Viet Cong were disciplined and organized; the free South Vietnamese were not. The Secretary General replied that he believed there were only two alternatives in Viet-Nam: a Communist takeover or the Laos pattern. Mr. Ball repeated that a coalition solution was unacceptable. This was the device contemplated by Point 3 of the Phan Van Dong Four Points.13 Point 3 would give the dominant role to the Viet Cong in a coalition government. The Secretary General responded that a coalition government might have been possible in 1963, but agreed with Ball that it was now out of the question (presumably because of the American military commitment).

Mr. Ball assured the Secretary General that we had looked long and hard at the proposal for a coalition government in 1963, and reiterated that the US could not accept it since it opened the door to a Communist takeover.

Several times throughout the conversation Mr. Ball reiterated that on the basis of evidence available to us, there had been no indications from the other side of a willingness to sit down unconditionally. Mr. Ball cited Seaborne’s reports to us running from the Fall of 1964 to May of this year. The Secretary General’s response was that Hanoi would not be as frank with the Canadians as with him.

Mr. Ball turned the conversation to the current situation. He said that, no matter how historians might sort out the past, the present reality was formidable. He stressed we are actively pursuing every possibility for a peaceful solution and reiterated our strong desire for unconditional discussion.

While the foregoing follows very much the same lines of what the Secretary General has said to Goldberg in past weeks, the most interesting aspect of this conversation relates to the Secretary General’s current views. The Secretary General said the Chinese in the past two months have been giving massive aid, both in small arms and food, to North Viet-Nam. He doubted the reports of direct Chinese Communist involvement with troops. Mr. Ball suggested that perhaps some Chinese Communist personnel were involved in technical and engineering work, bridge building, and repair of the railroad.

In view of this massive aid, the Secretary General indicated that he had information that the Soviets were nearing a big decision. They must show solidarity with Peking or go the other way. (He seemed very clear on this point.) The Secretary General felt that this decision would be related to the possibility of the Soviets having to honor their mutual security pact with China. The Secretary General indicated that he was [Page 821] aware of rumors floating around the UN corridors among the Eastern Europeans of such a decision but he doubted that the Eastern Europeans really had any inside information. He also felt that the change in Indonesia would play a big part in present Soviet thinking and would have a key effect on the Soviet decision. He implied, but did not say so directly, that if the Indonesians continued to move away from Peking this might help the Soviets to move away or break with Peking.

The conversation concluded with the Secretary General responding to a question regarding his actions at the time of the non-aligned appeal. He reported that while he had been asked by Stevenson to follow-up and that he had done so with the Soviets, he found that the Soviets were unwilling to put any pressure on Hanoi at that time.

Mr. Ball thanked the Secretary General for receiving him and reiterated the US Government’s regard for the Secretary General. He also noted his intention to report this conversation to the President.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Agency File, United Nations, Vol. 2. Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Sisco.
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. III, Document 223.
  3. In a December 4 letter to the President, Goldberg reported that during recent talks with the Secretary General, U Thant had expressed the conviction that a cease-fire in Vietnam would be seen as proof of U.S. good will. (Department of State, U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Subject Files, Reel 127, Frames 722–724)
  4. The French President made this proposal in a number of fora; see De Gaulle, Discours et Messages, vol. 4, pp. 217–219 and 234–237.
  5. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. I, Documents 196 and 202.
  6. August 6; see ibid., footnote 1, Document 298.
  7. See ibid., Document 427.
  8. Extracts of U Thant’s February 24 press conference are in Public Papers of the Secretaries General of the United Nations, vol. VII, U Thant, 1965–1967, pp. 42–50.
  9. Apparent reference to a report that U Thant stated that the United States turned down a peace proposal he had forwarded. The reports grew out of oblique comments by the Secretary General during his February 24 press conference that the U.S. Government was holding back the truth about the possibilities of negotiated peace from the American people. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. II, Documents 161, 162, and 164.
  10. See ibid., Document 233.
  11. See ibid., vol. XII, Document 327.
  12. See ibid., vol. III, Document 119.
  13. For text of the Four Points, see ibid., vol. II, Document 245.