258. Editorial Note

On September 6, 1972, Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker reported in backchannel message 148 to President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry A. Kissinger on his meeting with the South Vietnamese President, Nguyen Van Thieu. At the meeting Bunker delivered a letter that he had helped draft while in Hawaii on August 31 to brief President Richard M. Nixon and Kissinger. The letter informed Thieu of adjustments the United States had made in its negotiating stance as a result of South Vietnamese proposals and assured him that the United States fully supported and would not desert South Vietnam in the Paris talks. The letter is printed as Tab E to Document 254.

According to Bunker: “I was unable to see Thieu until late this evening when I presented the President’s letter. He was very pleased by the letter and the assurances it contained. I went over with him the considerations governing our peace proposal, covering the points you had previously made and those we discussed in Honolulu. I stressed particularly that it is essential to achieve through our joint and mutual acts both here and in the negotiations support in the United States for the President’s policy through the November elections; that we must [Page 947] have an offset should the other side decide to surface their proposal, otherwise we should be placed in a difficult and embarrassing—perhaps impossible—position vis-à-vis our critics; and if we present a reasonable and forthcoming proposal and if the other side rejects it, we are then in position to say that they insist on a settlement which guarantees their political predominance. I said that we had revised our proposal so as to meet as many of the GVN’s objections to our original (August 18) draft as we think consistent with a proposal which will be sufficiently forthcoming to achieve our mutual objectives. We believe that in its revised form it ensures that the outcome will be a political process determined by the South Vietnamese. The veto powers which the GVN will possess in the various forums will enable it to protect adequately its interests.”

The Ambassador also told Kissinger that: “It developed in the course of conversation that the GVN’s major concern is the question of internal political stability and how the composition and function of the Committee of National Reconciliation (CNR) will affect it. The GVN is continuing to study the problem in an effort to find a formula which it believes will be acceptable to the various nationalist, political and religious groups without causing political turmoil.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 413, Backchannel, Backchannel Messages, From Amb. Bunker—Saigon, September 1972)

In backchannel message 149 to Kissinger, September 7, Bunker conveyed Thieu’s anxieties that the CNR was a Trojan Horse of coalition government, and forwarded his comments: “We take note of the USG comment that the CNR is for the supervision of the elections and not the government.

“However, we confirm that the South Vietnamese people consider the CNR with a 50/50 composition as a de facto coalition government.

“The CNR will be considered as a super government because (1) it will eliminate the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, and the Executive in matters pertaining to the drafting of the election law, the organization of the election, the determination of the qualification of the candidates, and the final pronouncement on the results of the election, and (2) the results of the new presidential election will affect the foundation of the future government which proportionately reflects the popular will.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 44, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Cables, 24 June–29 August 1972)

Bunker and Thieu arranged to meet during the morning of September 7 to review the latest American proposal. Thieu informed the Bunker that his chief adviser, Hoang Duc Nha, and national security adviser, Nguyen Phu Duc, would also be there. Bunker would bring the Deputy Ambassador, Charles Whitehouse.

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Meanwhile, Kissinger sent Bunker a brief message: “I just wanted you to know before your appointment with Thieu that while we recognize his problems, we believe that we have met all of his serious concerns. As regards any further modifications to our position, we believe that the considerations we have outlined to him are overriding. We hope you can persuade Thieu of need to table text identical to or as close as possible to our latest version. While we need to maintain our plan, we could consider suggestions to drop or modify particular clauses. (Backchannel message WHS 2155 from Kissinger to Bunker, September 6; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 855, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XVII)

Bunker reported on the meeting in backchannel message 150 to Kissinger, September 7: “I explained that important revisions had been made in the draft under consideration in order to meet the GVN concerns, that the draft had been reviewed in my meetings with you and the President in Honolulu and that we felt that all of their major concerns had been met. I called Thieu’s attention to the major changes, especially those affecting Point 4 with which they had been most concerned. I said that the proposal in its present form was essentially the January 25 offer but with the composition of the electoral commission [the CNR] spelled out in somewhat greater detail.”

Bunker also conveyed Thieu’s additional views on the topic. “After reading the revised drafts, Thieu discussed paragraph 4 and specifically the difficulty of selecting ‘representatives of various political and religious tendencies.’ The essence of his comments was that the principle was a good one, but actually reaching agreement on these individuals would raise many practical problems. He noted that the negotiations might bog down on this point. This might be fine if that was our objective, but if agreement with the Communists was being sought this method of selecting representatives for the CNR would indubitably prove to be a stumbling block.”

In response to Thieu, reported Bunker: “I pointed out that in specifying that the neutral element should be composed of ‘various political and religious tendencies in South Viet-Nam’ this should include opposition political parties, religious elements such as the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai and ethnic minorities, all of whom were nationalists and anti-Communists.”

Toward the end of the session: “The discussion then turned to future contingencies. Thieu asked whether an even more conciliatory proposal would be made if the present one were rejected by the other side. I assured him this was not envisaged and that we would not ask him for anything more than this.

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Thieu then asked what would happen if this proposal is rejected. I recalled to him your statement that if the other side rejects this proposal we would return to the President’s May 8 proposal and would increase our pressure on the Communists.

Thieu then asked what would happen if the May 8 proposal were accepted. I replied that I envisaged negotiations on the establishment of a cease-fire. I noted that in all our cease-fire proposals we have demanded international supervision and implementation of the principle that all military forces remain within their national frontiers.

Thieu then commented ‘We are beginning to see light’ and asked for a day to study the proposal further. I informed him that you would be leaving Washington on the 9th and I wanted to get word to you before your departure. We agreed to meet Saturday morning and I hope to have a message to reach you late on the 8th or opening of business on the 9th.

“I then talked with Thieu alone and, citing the reasons, impressed on him how essentially important it was for us to be in a position to table this proposal and assured him we would not ask anything more of him. I think he understands clearly all the considerations involved. He was in a cooperative mood and I hope to report substantial progress.” (Ibid., Box 413, Backchannel, Backchannel Messages, From Amb. Bunker—Saigon, September 1972)

The substance and tone of Bunker’s message encouraged Kissinger. As he thanked Bunker for his good work he enjoined him: “Please repeat to Thieu the major thrust of the President’s letter, i.e., that we have not cooperated and sacrificed so much over all these years to undermine our friends and our objectives in the homestretch.” (Backchannel message WHS 2157 from Kissinger to Bunker, September 7; ibid., Box 869, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Camp David Cables, August–September 1972)

Over the next few days, the wires hummed with messages between Bunker in Saigon and Kissinger in Washington and, from September 9, from Kissinger abroad as he flew to Moscow on business unrelated to Vietnam, then to England on September 14, and to Paris on September 15 to meet with Le Duc Tho. During these days, the differences between the two allies became progressively smaller. Thieu remained obdurate, however, on the same substantive element in the proposal—Point 4 (A). In a memorandum given to Bunker on September 13, and sent to Kissinger, Thieu made the following point:

“With regard to Point 10 of your memorandum concerning Section 4 (A) on the composition of the CNR, we regret that we are not able to accept any wording which implies or makes people think of 3 distinct components of whatever body, be it a committee or a government which the Communists have advocated.” His underlying reasoning, by now [Page 950] familiar to Kissinger and Bunker, further explained why Thieu rejected Point 4 (A): “As we have stated in our previous memoranda, we consider that the important responsibilities given to the CNR make it a super government which replaces the National Assembly, the Supreme Court in the task of electing the most important position in SVN and which affects the composition of the future government.” (Backchannel message 156 from Bunker to Kissinger, September 13; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 44, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Cables, 5–30 September)

Consequent to Thieu’s unwillingness to budge on what Kissinger later characterized as a “hair-splitting issue” (White House Years, page 1326), Bunker wrote from Saigon: “I am frankly disappointed by the GVN response. It seemed to me our arguments were both logical and persuasive, but it is evident that the GVN is greatly concerned by what they believe the implications will be of the composition of the CNR on their domestic political situation.” (Backchannel message 155 from Bunker to Kissinger, September 13; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 44, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Cables, 5–30 September) Kissinger, still in Moscow, took in the message traffic and reached the following conclusion, which he communicated to Haig in Washington:

“You will note from Bunker’s cables that GVN has failed to agree to one aspect of our political point, namely composition of committee to supervise elections, as well as some minor points in procedural plan, despite efforts over past weeks to meet GVN concerns. We believe it is imperative to table our plans as they now stand. We don’t have time for another turn around in Saigon. I need the President’s authorization to go ahead despite few remaining differences.” (Message Hakto 24 from Kissinger to Haig, September 13; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 855, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XVII)