7. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

1474. For the Secretary from Bunker.

Now that the new team is in harness in Washington and Paris, and as we are heading into the substantive phase of the negotiations, I would like to make some general observations on our basic posture in dealing with the enemy and with our Vietnamese allies. All of us here fully understand the great importance of making rapid progress in the negotiations, and I am quite aware of the pressures from American public and Congressional opinion. The question is how we best conduct ourselves to achieve this progress that is desired by all of us. What follows, therefore, is not intended to be critical in any sense but to offer some suggestions, in the light of a fairly comprehensive experience in negotiations covering some 18 years in government service and a much longer period in business, which I hope will be found constructive.
As I look over the record of the very difficult negotiations with the DRV between May and November, I am struck with the importance of patience.2 It was only when we convinced them that they simply could not obtain from us an unconditional cessation of the bombing that they began to move. This took five difficult months. The last weeks [Page 15] of that negotiation are especially instructive, for as we approached agreement it became apparent that the enemy was willing to give up a great many unreasonable demands in order to get the substantive negotiations started. Then, however, came the period of our difficulties with our South Vietnamese allies, and Hanoi soon became aware of deadlines that we were imposing on ourselves and on the GVN. I think it is fair to say that our patent eagerness to get the procedural arrangements out of the way may have delayed agreement as the enemy found it possible and even profitable to sit tight and to exploit through propaganda the differences that were developing between Washington and Saigon.
My first conclusion is that pressure for speed and the practice of fixing deadlines are quite likely to result in slower, rather than faster, progress on the substantive issues. One of the last messages I received from the outgoing administration referred to “excessive and unrealistic public and Congressional expectations” as requiring us to push ahead as rapidly as possible. I think we should be clear in our minds that the negotiations will be arduous, complex, difficult and probably long (unless we want agreement at any price). I hope the new administration can find some ways to get that message across to our Congress and our public. Such an effort would in itself have a very salutary effect on the enemy. If, instead, we signal to him that we are in a hurry and working to deadlines, he will merely dig in, try to exact every possible concession from us, and thus prolong the negotiations. This is a matter of basic style, which as you know is so important in diplomacy. The coming weeks will establish the style of the new team. It should be one of deliberation and patience, of a purposeful and responsible search for an end to the conflict, without any undue time-pressure or expectation of quick results.
I now turn to our Vietnamese allies, who are negotiating partners in a double sense: We must first negotiate with them to keep in tandem whenever possible, and then we must work as a team with them in negotiating with the enemy. This is a difficult operation even under the best of circumstances, but all of us should recognize at the outset that the GVN simply does not have the organizational depth or the capacity to make decisions as rapidly as we. This is true not only of South Viet-Nam but of all the underdeveloped countries. We only risk frustrating ourselves and creating a sense of frustration also in the government we deal with if we expect them to operate with the efficiency and despatch of our own government. I think a good deal of our trouble with them in late October stemmed from the fact that they simply could not gear themselves up for action as quickly as we had thought (and as President Thieu, initially, had thought). When under the lash of time limits, they panic and become paralyzed.
We should also recognize, I think, that under the form of government that has been set up in Saigon two years ago (actually largely at our urging), Thieu and Ky no longer have the freedom of action that was enjoyed by the military dictatorships of former years. The moves of the GVN are now closely watched by an elected National Assembly and by a public opinion that has a surprising latitude for expression. They have to take these factors into consideration just as we do in our country. Thieu has felt it necessary to consult what he calls his expanded national security council (the key military and cabinet officers plus the leaders of the two houses) at every important step. We may regard this a sign of weakness and may feel that he should exert more leadership; but we are not likely to change the basic character of Thieu who by and large is the best and most widely accepted leader his country has had in ten years. Ky is decisive but impulsive and sometimes irresponsible. Thieu has none of these characteristics; he is cautious and methodical, and in any case he lacks the political power to move by fiat.
There is one still more important and still more basic factor in our posture vis-à-vis the GVN which has to do with the intangible of mutual confidence. As I mentioned in my seventy-fifth and last message to President Johnson,3 at the root of many of the hesitations and delays in Saigon during the last two months lay a deep suspicion about our ultimate intentions. Were we getting ready to turn our backs on them? Was the outgoing administration perhaps so intent on results that it was ready to sacrifice vital interests of our allies? Unfair questions perhaps, but deeply troubling ones to many of South Viet-Nam’s leaders. Whenever we try to push them beyond their capacity, it revives and increases their doubts about our commitment. If rightly or wrongly they come to feel that essential positions and commitments to them are being abandoned, we will be even less able to get them to do what we want, and the bargaining power of the communists would be enormously increased.
As I mentioned in my last message to President Johnson, I think a good deal of our troubles during the last few months could have been avoided if we had made haste more slowly. I am deeply convinced on the basis of my experience here and elsewhere that our enemy and our ally will both dig in if we try to drive ahead too quickly. I am quite aware, of course, that a time may come when we have to lower the boom on the GVN, but we cannot do this all the time and during recent weeks we have in fact reached a situation of rapidly diminishing returns because we tried to too often. In view of our strongly held common conviction that we must make progress in Paris as rapidly as possible, [Page 17] I think agreement on a basic negotiating posture should figure high on our agenda.
You may wish to repeat this message to Cabot Lodge in Paris for his information and possible comment.4
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–14 VIET. Secret; Nodis.
  2. An unattributed memorandum, January 24, entitled “Ambassador Bunker’s Suggestions for the U.S. Negotiation Posture” summarized for Nixon’s daily briefing Bunker’s observations as follows: “The main thrust of Bunker’s message (Saigon 1474) is that we must be patient, not overeager, in dealing with the Vietnamese Communists. If we set any deadlines for ourselves, the other side will sense it and exploit it. The new team’s posture, he says, should be one of deliberation and patience, of purposeful and responsible search for an end to conflict.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1, President’s Daily Briefs)
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. VII, Document 285.
  4. In telegram 1195 from Paris, Delto 1245, January 27, Lodge wrote: “I think Saigon’s 1474 is full of wisdom.” Lodge suggested that the South Vietnamese could not be pushed too rapidly in negotiations, that they should be privately informed of U.S.-North Vietnamese private bilateral negotiations in Paris, and that there would be instances when they would disagree with U.S. strategy and tactics, but their concerns should be tolerated. Lodge concluded that there were times when North and South Vietnam needed “a hard push from the outside,” but while this pressure “is sometimes indispensable, equally obviously, it cannot be done all the time.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1, President’s Daily Briefs)